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O'Hara: If Stafford felt the season was on the line, he kept it to himself

Posted 10 hours ago

It might be next week, next month or even next year, but if the Lions move on to put themselves in playoff contention, they have a marker to look back at as the point where they kept their season alive.

Whether the final game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 28-24 victory over the Seahawks at Ford Field saved the season or prolonged it remains to be seen. There is too much football to be played in the last nine weeks to make a definitive judgment.

But know this: a loss to the Seahawks would have started everything that a franchise dreads: the draft watch, the call to begin getting young players ready for next season, and the questions of whether this coaching staff and group of players are really the right combination to produce a consistent winner.

The Lions are alive and breathing today – but certainly not resting comfortably in last place in the NFC North - because of an 80-yard, 16-play drive that ended in Matthew Stafford’s one-yard pass to Titus Young with 20 seconds left.

The drive started at the Lions’ 20-yard line with 5:27 left. It ended with Young curled up in the end zone, clutching the ball after beating Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner on a quick slant that Young and Stafford executed to perfection.

By winning, the Lions made their record 3-4. It is nothing to brag about, but being 2-5 would have them talking about things no team wants to talk about before Halloween.

If Stafford felt the season was on the line when the drive started, he kept it to himself.

"I was just out there having fun for me," he said after the game. "In the NFL, the fourth quarter is fun. All of our guys on this team know it. We had a great tempo going, a great belief in the huddle in that fourth-quarter drive. All the guys on our team, they know it. They love it.

"I think everybody in that huddle wasn’t blinking at all."

The Lions have gotten used to Stafford’s fourth-quarter heroics. The season began with a fourth-quarter drive that beat the Rams with 10 seconds left. Their other win was on a field goal in overtime at Philadelphia.

Belief in your quarterback is a wonderful thing in the NFL, and the Lions have it in Stafford because of his burgeoning resume of game-winning drives.

"As long as we have time on the clock, we have a chance with him," said tackle Gosder Cherilus.

There is a downside to winning late, and it’s that the Lions have put themselves in those situations.

They did it Sunday by letting the Seahawks drive 87 yards on 12 plays to take a 24-21 lead on rookie Russell Wilson’s 16-yard TD pass to Zach Miller.

With a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Lions opened for business at their own 20 with the clock reading 5:27, and the situation saying "win or else."

A field goal would have put the Lions in overtime for the third time this year, but Stafford wanted the lead, not a tie.

"I said, 'Let’s go get a touchdown and win it,'" Stafford said, relaying his message in the huddle.

On first down, Stafford went to Calvin Johnson on a short pass that gained 15 yards, out to the 35. It was one of only three catches in the game for Johnson.

The debate on how Johnson is being used – or not being used – will wait for another day.

The first-down catch provided some breathing room and jump-started the drive on the way into field-goal range.

But like Stafford said, he wanted to win, not tie, and he had to work to keep the drive going.

Three plays later, it was 3rd-and-5. Johnson got open for a six-yard gain and a first down at the 46.

It is a great comfort to an offense – and a dilemma for a defense – to know that a player as great as Johnson can hurt a defense as much with a six-yard catch to keep the chains going as with a 70-yard bomb that lights up the scoreboard.

Stafford went to work on the underside of Seattle’s defense to eat up yards – and, as coach Jim Schwartz said, "chew up the clock" to keep Seattle from a chance to answer back after a score.

Stafford spread the ball around like a man handing out Halloween candy. There was something for everyone. He completed 10-of-15 passes in the last drive, with two throw-aways and only one run. Five receivers caught passes.

"He just kept checking it down," said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. "That’s pretty much how the drive went."

The first real crisis came after two incomplete passes meant for Tony Scheffler and Johnson.

The one to Johnson, in the right corner of the end zone, could have been the game-winning throw. Johnson was open, but the ball deflected off his hands as he reached high and a little back to make the catch.

"I think it might have been a little too hard," Stafford said. "That ball was kind of on him."

We’ve seen Johnson make better catches, but the result was 3rd-and-10 at the 12.

Stafford went to an unlikely hero, finding Joique Bell out of the backfield. Bell lunged to within a yard of the end zone after the catch, making it 1st-and-goal with 35 seconds left.

Stafford rolled right on first down. With no one open, he had to throw the ball away. In fact, he made so sure that nobody could catch it that he threw the ball behind the photographers lining that side of the field.

Second down was similar, except Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons was closing fast. Stafford got the ball away in time to avoid a sack.

On the climactic third-down play, Young was lined up right with Johnson split right. The coverage dictated where Stafford went.

"That was a called play," Stafford said. "They had about four dudes standing next to Calvin and one dude standing next to Titus. I like my numbers over there a little bit better."

In the end, the numbers looked good everywhere – on the field, on the scoreboard, and in the standings.