MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: Franchise players made franchise plays in win at Washington

Posted Sep 22, 2013

With the game on the line, Detroit's "big three" -- Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh -- headlined the big plays.

LANDOVER, Md. --This is what you have franchise players for – for 4th-and-inches and 1st-and-11 on the game-clinching drive, and for the steady hands that shed the weight of an 0-and-forever losing streak, and for the defensive stand that swings the end-game strategy in your favor.

The Lions have those franchise players -- Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh -- and some solid role players who played their part to accomplish what no Lions team had done in the history of the National Football League.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

The Lions' 27-20 victory over Washington at FedExField on Sunday won't qualify as an instant classic anywhere except for the Lions and what it does to their history.

It was an eraser game and a building-block game, all in one.

It erased one of the worst losing streaks in any franchise's history. The Lions had never won at Washington since the franchise relocated from Boston to Washington. The first loss was in 1939, and there were 20 others, wiring together a 21-loss streak that gnawed at anyone even remotely connected with the franchise.

And more important for the present of this team and franchise, winning Sunday made the Lions' record 2-1 and kept them in touch with the lead in the NFC North. Yes, it's early -- too early to start counting wins and losses and what other teams do in the division.

But after last week's fold-up that resulted in a 26-21 loss at Arizona, you can bet a lot of people were wondering if the Lions would tack on a loss that would make it two straight and, perhaps, begin one of those losing skids that have wrecked so many seasons.

The Lions did not do that Sunday. They exploited Washington's weaknesses, namely a pass defense that is the worst in the league, and the physical limitations caused by a knee injury to Robert Griffin III that has turned the once-dashing quarterback into Robert Griffin 1.0. He's a lesser version of himself at this point.

When the Lions needed a big play Sunday, they got it on a quarterback sneak by Stafford, an 11-yard TD pass from Stafford to Johnson, and from Suh wreaking his usual havoc in the middle of a defense that made life tough for Griffin.

Stafford said all the right things about breaking the streak.

"It's more for the fans," he said. "Honestly, we didn't talk about it one time."

Whether you believe that or not, it's more important that Stafford talked about the key plays that gave the Lions their clinching touchdown.

Not everything went perfectly in the game, which is the rule more than the exception in pro football. When you have great athletes on the field playing for a lot of money, things are going to happen that nobody can plan on. The game doesn't follow a script.

It's an improv performance, and the Lions ad-libbed when they had to.

Washington's defense had the starring role early, when DeAngelo Hall pilfered a pass meant for Johnson and returned it for a TD that gave Washington a 7-0 lead.

If there's anything we've learned about Stafford, it's that he doesn't flinch. He has faith in his arm, and he kept slinging Sunday. He wound up with 385 yards passing and two TDs, and he did it almost with ease. Really, it looked almost like 60 minutes of pitch and catch with whichever group of receivers happened to be on the field.

The balance point in the game came with the Lions holding a 20-17 lead and with the offense getting the ball at its 29-yard line and a little less more than eight minutes left.

In similar spots last week at Arizona, the offense fizzled. On Sunday, it scorched Washington's secondary.

Two big pass completions -- 16 yards to Joique Bell and 33 to Kris Durham -- helped move the ball to Washington's 21.

Three more plays made it 4th-and-1, with the ball just outside Washington's 12.

The choice was go for it, or kick a field goal to make the lead 23-16. Really, there was no choice for head coach Jim Schwartz, Stafford or anyone else on the offense. They wanted to go for it.

Schwartz was asked if there was any argument in making the decision.

"I don't usually argue with myself," he said.

It was winning time, and Stafford wanted the ball in his hands.

"I was hoping we'd have the quarterback snaek," he said.

The call as the sneak, and Stafford said he talked to center Dominic Raiola on which way to go -- left or right.

Raiola said left -- after "talking to my second command," as he referred to left guard Rob Sims.

"He had a feeling," Stafford explained later. "Those guys up front are battling all day."

The line won that battle, and Stafford got a push from Bell for good measure to get the first down with room to spare.

On the next play, Stafford hit Johnson in a seam to the right near the goal line, and he lunged into the end zone for an 11-yard TD catch.

It was Johnson's seventh catch of the game, and he did a quick shake in the end zone that qualifies as a celebration dance by his standards.

With 3:56 left, there was more work to do. The defense did its share, keeping Washington out of the end zone when it had to settle for a field goal after getting to the Lions' three-yard line at the two-minute warning.

The field goal made the rest of the game more of a nuisance than any real threat that the Lions would lose. The only real angst was caused by the losing history.

The victory was a long time coming, especially for older players such Raiola, the team's elder statesman in his 13th season as a Lion.

"The phone was ringing," he said. "We answered the call."