Detroit Lions: The 16 Greatest Plays of 2011

Chris Madden@@christomaddenAnalyst IIJanuary 19, 2012

Detroit Lions: The 16 Greatest Plays of 2011

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    The 2011 Detroit Lions was a team that rewarded long suffering fans with a season for the ages. Sure, Lions teams of the 50's actually won championships. A Barry Sanders-led team even won a playoff game in the 90's.

    When you consider the team's recent history, though, it is hard to fathom what they've accomplished this year—and how good they can be in years to come.

    Going from 0-16 to 10-6 in three years is quite an accomplishment and I hope that fans appreciate it. It seems that some have already taken it for granted. Instead choosing to complain about another first-round playoff exit.

    Yes, the Lions have not won a playoff game in over a decade. I suppose if that is how you gauge success then you might consider this year a failure.

    However, for the rest of us sane people, 2011 was an amazing year. One that restored pride in a perpetually down on its luck franchise.

    There were insane comebacks, jaw dropping plays, players that came through in the clutch, plenty of controversy and best of all: winning!

    Fans can rest assured that this was just the beginning. Detroit is set up for many years of success.

    They finally have a front office that appears to know what they are doing. They have a coach that changed a losing culture and they have highly talented players in key positions.

    2011 was definitely a year to remember in Detroit. It was a year filled with highlights; and some lowlights (but I'll save those for a different day).

    Here are the best of the best. The top 16 plays from the season that was. 

16. Monday Night Football in Detroit

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    Obviously this was not a "play," but it was such a significant moment it had to be mentioned.

    It was the perfect storm of Detroit Lion hysteria. They started the year on a roll by winning four games in a row—often in spectacular fashion.

    They were playing at home on Monday Night Football which seemed to happen as often as a Halley's Comet sighting.

    Oh yeah, they were also facing their hated division rival Chicago Bears.

    The Bears defeated the Lions twice in 2010 and Detroit felt they should have won both of those games. Especially the first game, when the referees committed thievery and stole a touch down away from Calvin Johnson.

    Needless to say, the Lions historical ineptness and their current success, culminated in a fan reaction so great that the city of Detroit pulsed with excitement and positive energy.

    It was truly great to see a city and a team—both had been down for so long—finally excited about something.

    Fans stormed Ford Field and on that night altered a game like no one had seen in a long time. The fans made so much noise they forced Chicago's offense to commit 14 penalties for 104 yards.

    Never mind that Detroit committed almost just as many. That's not the point!

    It was the first truly great moment of the 2011 season. One that restored pride in the franchise, that brought the Lions to national attention and convinced a lot of fans that this team was actually good.

    Plus it had the coolest intro in history.

15. Tony Scheffler's Touchdown Celebrations

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    Tony Scheffler endeared himself to Lions fans this year for many different reasons.

    He was a reliable target for Matthew Stafford and he knew how to hold on to the ball in traffic. The same cannot be said for his higher-drafted counterpart.

    I won't name names.

    Scheffler also provided some of the greatest comic relief since Charlie Sheen visited Detroit. Except his act didn't take place on a stage. It took place in the end zone after he scored a touchdown.

    Scheffler was a one-man dancing machine; and he's more talented and entertaining than Sheen will ever be.

    First he showed off his moves during the preseason demolition of the New England Patriots.

    Then this gem in Week 1 in Tampa Bay.

    It all culminated with this homage to the AT&T flashmob commercial.

    I'm sure he's already working on material for 2012. Thanks for the memories, Tony!

14. Calvin Johnson Starts 2011 Right Where He Left off

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    In Week 1 the Detroit Lions came out flat against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They ultimately won the game, 27-20, but it was a lot closer than the Lions and their fans would have liked.

    The real story from the game was Calvin Johnson. This was where his incredible start to the season began. He scored twice and looked like a man among boys.

    Fans knew he was good, but this performance made people think this could be the start of something great—and it was.

    The video above was the more impressive of the two touchdowns. Stafford simply tossed it up and let Johnson go get it. He can out jump everyone on the planet, so this was a good strategy.

    Here's the other TD. This was a gutsy call on fourth down. Johnson and Stafford made it look easy.

13. Chris Houston Demoralizes Tim Tebow

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    The game was marketed as good versus evil. The Broncos were led by Tim Tebow and the country was in the midst of Tebow-mania. With Tebow, the Broncos had a higher power behind them.

    Or something like that.

    The Lions were the yin to the Broncos yang. Tebow was Luke Skywalker and the Lions were the dark side. 

    You get the point.

    In reality, both teams were actually pretty similar. They were both led by underrated quarterbacks, they both had good defenses and they both really wanted to win.

    As the game played out, though, it was obvious that the Lions had Tebow's number. The Lions played one of their most complete games of the year and had their second-highest margin of victory on the season.

    They also Tebowed Tebow!

    The best play of the game, though, was Chris Houston's interception. The game was already in hand, but his play was like pouring salt on a fresh wound.

    Lions fans rejoiced that it was someone else getting their wound salted for a change!

13. Cliff Avril Forces Fumble and Returns It for Six

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    Here's the video.

    Avril rushes around the edge and gets a hand on Tebow and the ball, knocking it loose. Without stopping he pursues the football, swoops it up and he's on his way to the end zone.

    It's a great athletic play. The kind that we got used to seeing from Avril. He had his best year in 2011.

    While Houston's 100-yard interception might have been the best play of the day, Avril's was not close behind.

    In fact, Avril's play was much more meaningful to the outcome of the game. It came early on in the third quarter. At the time, the Lions only led 24-3.

    Tebow had been performing miracles all season. The game was still well within reach for the Broncos.

    Avril's play effectively put the game out of reach.

11. Kyle Vanden Bosch Sack Fumble Recovery on Alex Smith

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    Here's the actual video.

    On the surface this looks like any other good defensive take away. Vanden Bosch beats his opponent around the edge and instead of trying to take Alex Smith's head off, he wisely goes for the ball.

    He strips Smith and recovers the ball in one swift motion. Probably KVB's best play of the year.

    What makes it great was the situation. Detroit was still in the midst of its win streak and they were facing the upstart 49ers, who at the time were in the same boat as Detroit. 

    San Francisco was putting together an impressive season and had surprised a lot of people. They were viewed as Detroit's first true test. 

    This sack/fumble came on San Francisco's first offensive play and gave Detroit the early advantage. Fans were anxious for Detroit to keep the win streak alive and this play eased their minds.

    KVB's reaction tells you all you need to know about how big of a play it was. 

    Unfortunately we all know how the game turned out.

    That doesn't mean we should forget how it started.

10. Willie Young Sacks a Saint

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    Here's the video.

    It was the Lions first playoff appearance in over a decade and they faced MVP candidate Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

    The Saints were heavy favorites and no one outside Detroit gave the Lions a chance. Actually most people in Detroit didn't give them a chance either.

    But guess what? The Lions stayed with them and had the game within their reach.

    Then Willie Young did something that no one on the Lions defensive line had been able to do all game. He got to Brees.

    That's when fans realized that the Lions could really win.

    Young side stepped the offensive lineman with ease and planted his face mask in Brees' chest. The ball came flying out, Lions players swarmed and Justin Durant picked it up and made a beeline for the end zone.

    Unfortunately, destiny was derailed by a referee with a whistle stuck in his throat. 

    Young's hit on Brees was huge though. It was exactly the type of big play that the Lions needed to defeat the Saints. Unfortunately they needed more than just this one.

    If the secondary could have come up with any of the three interceptions they dropped, they might have made this list too.

9. Jason Hanson Kicks Three in a Row to Beat the Vikings in OT

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    It would be unfair to Jason Hanson's legacy with the Detroit Lions if I did not include him on this list. Fortunately, I did not have to make up a silly scenario to do so.

    Hanson belongs here. His actions in the Metrodome on September 25th won the game for Detroit.

    Years from now I'm sure people will talk about Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson's performance that stood out. Both did have a role in the win but neither were as big as Hanson.

    He accounted for nearly half of the Lions total point. Pretty amazing since all of their points came after halftime.

    Hanson kicked a 28-yarder in the third quarter to bring the Lions within 10 points.

    In the fourth quarter he booted a 50-yarder to tie the game and three minutes later a 40-yarder to win.

    Unfortunately the Lions defense could not stop the Christian Ponder led offense. Ryan Longwell kicked a 49-yarder of his own to send the game to overtime.

    No matter. Hanson was not about to let the Lions lose. Following a 40-yard pass to Calvin Johnson, Hanson turned to Jim Schwartz and screamed, "Put me in coach!" Schwartz listened and Hanson cooly kicked a walk-off 32-yarder for the win.

    (I made up that last part. I'm sure Hanson did not say anything to Schwartz. It would have been a lot cooler if he did though)

8. The Cliff Hanger

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    Here's the video.

    The Lions were leading the Chargers, 31-10, late in the fourth quarter when Avril intercepted Philip Rivers and ran it back for a four-yard return touchdown. It was a meaningless play. The Lions had the game won and the playoffs were already secured.

    It makes the list simply because it was amazing.

    Avril put his athleticism—and tremendous reach—on display and slammed the door shut on the Chargers.

    It's got to be his best play as a pro.

7. Stafford's Touchdown Against the Saints

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    In the second half of the NFC Wild Card Game, the New Orleans Saints came out of the locker room fired up. The Lions had been trading touchdowns with them, but now the Saints started to pull away. They scored two third quarter touchdowns to go up by 10 points.

    The Lions were on the ropes. Who was going to step up? Matthew Stafford, of course. Except this time with his legs and his heart, not his arm.

    For any other quarterback this would have been a good play. For a quarterback that had been labeled fragile this was a momentous occasion.

    Stafford sacrificed himself to get the score as he dove for the end zone. Coaches, teammates and fans held their breaths.

    Not just to see the touchdown signal but to make sure Stafford would get up!

    And get up he did. It was another clutch play by the Lions Mr. Clutch. The score pulled them within three points of the Saints and, for the moment, gave the Lions much-needed momentum.

    I'm sure Stafford wasn't thinking this at the time, but his run served another purpose. It made a statement.

    More than any other Quarterback in recent memory, Stafford has always had to answer questions about his toughness and durability.

    He answered those questions this year by playing in every game—and playing through injury. This play was a statement to all those critics. Stafford sacrificed his body, threw caution to the wind and went for it.

    He wasn't thinking about his shoulder or his finger. He was thinking about winning.

    Which was exactly what he should have been thinking about.

6. Detroit's Defense Intercepts Tony Romo Three Times

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    Detroit had already made a dramatic comeback and won in overtime against the Vikings the week before. So when the Cowboys took a 27-3 lead early in the third quarter, Lions fans held on to a sliver of hope.

    Could it happen two weeks in a row? The answer was yes, but I don't think anyone expected it to happen the way it did.

    Detroit's defense took over and intercepted Romo three times in the second half. Two interception were returned for touchdowns, the other resulted in Calvin Johnson's game winner.

    Sure, Romo took most of the blame. But the truth was that Detroit made great plays. These weren't "gift" interceptions. Well maybe Bobby Carpenter's was but he still made a good catch.

    Carpenter got things started with the most creative interception and touchdown run of the year.

    Chris Houston intercepted Romo on the Cowboy's next possession and went 56 yards for the touchdown, bringing Detroit within 10 points.

    Stephen Tulloch completed the trifecta and intercepted Romo with 4:22 left in the fourth. About three minutes later Calvin Johnson was hauling in the game winner and Detroit Lions history was made.

5. Jahvid Best Saves His Best for Monday Night

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    It was the most electrifying play of the night. It was also the play that tore the heart out of Chicago's defense.

    It was the type of blink and you missed it play that Best is capable of when healthy. It took him about .5 seconds to get through the line and get to the open field. Then he was gone.

    The look on Urlacher's face—confusion and exasperation—said it all. Lance Briggs with his head in his hands confirmed it: The Bears were beat.

    The rest of the game was an afterthought. Best sealed the deal and brought a Monday Night Football victory to Ford Field. 

4. Calvin Johnson's Legend Grows Against Dallas

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    We all know that the Cowboy's game was the second crazy comeback in 2011 for the Lions. It was also the first time we saw Calvin Johnson take over a game.

    Following this victory people started acknowledging that Johnson was in fact one of the best receivers in the NFL. I think Cris Carter even came out and admitted he underestimated Johnson after this game.

    Both catches are beauties and represent just how dangerous he is; especially in the red zone. Stafford simply threw up two jump balls and let Johnson's natural ability take over. 

    Whether in single coverage or triple coverage  Johnson was not going to be denied.

    In fact, Rob Ryan's decision to leave Johnson in single coverage, on the game-winning touchdown, likely resulted in Johnson facing two or three defenders on almost every play the rest of the year.

    If Martin Mayhew ever doubts the need to resign Johnson, all he needs to do is watch the fourth quarter of this game to remind himself.

3. Stafford's Record Setting Day in Green Bay

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    A total of 520 yards, 36 completions, five touchdowns and a 103.5 quarterback rating. I still can't believe that the Lions lost this game when Matthew Stafford's line looks like this.

    Never mind that most of the Green Bay starters—including Aaron Rodgers—didn't play. Losing seemed impossible.

    Yet it happened. The Lions ran into the Lambeau curse. Stafford's touchdown to Titus Young was taken away, he threw two interceptions and Matt Flynn impersonated Tom Brady.

    Forget the loss because with Stafford's performance he now holds, or is tied for, every Lions team passing record—passing yards, completions and touchdowns—for a single game and a season.

    Not bad for playing in his first full season.

    As this ESPN article reports, though, Stafford was not satisfied with his amazing numbers on that day in Green Bay.

    He wanted to win.

    Yes, a win would have set up the Lions to play the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card Game. At that time they were viewed as a better matchup than New Orleans.

    Stafford simply wanted to stick it to the Super Bowl champs though.

    Despite the loss, it was a performance that proved Stafford deserves to be mentioned with other elite quarterbacks in the league.

2. Stafford Keeps the Playoff Dream Alive in Oakland

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    Despite a five-game win streak to start the season, the Lions found themselves between a rock and a hard place to end it.

    They needed three wins in four games to get into the playoffs. One of those games was at Lambeau Field.

    The realistic fan knew that beginning in Week 14 the Lions needed to win three straight games. No one wanted the season to hinge on beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

    The Lions barely won at home over the Vikings. Remember this great moment. It probably should have made this list.

    Then they headed to Oakland. The Lions went toe-to-toe with Oakland for the first half. Then in the third quarter Oakland pulled away. They had a 27-14 lead with less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

    It wasn't looking good for the Lions. Sure, they'd come back before but there was so little time left.

    Then Matthew Stafford took over and showed fans that he's the real deal; and the quarterback to lead this team in the future.

    It wasn't just the two scoring drives that he engineered. It wasn't that he had one of his best games. It wasn't that he played interception-free football.

    He did all of this with the game—and the season—on the line. He engineered two game-winning drives immediately after getting sacked, losing the ball and watching Oakland run it in for a touchdown.

    Stafford wasn't shaken. He stayed cool and did his job. He played his best football, made plays when he had to and won a game that his team needed him to win.

    Isn't that what great quarterbacks do?

1. Calvin Johnson's Playoff Performance

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    Calvin Johnson's playoff coming out party was simply an exclamation point to an amazing season. Too bad the Lions lost.

    That being said, you can't overlook the game he had: 12 receptions, 211 yards and two touchdowns.

    Here is his first TD, and here's his second. Notice how passes were thrown into double coverage and Johnson made it look like no one was on him.

    As if anyone has any doubt, this game is the ultimate showcase of Johnson's talent and gives Martin Mayhew even more evidence that the Lions future success hinges on re-signing him.

    Unless you listen to Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press.

    Mr. Sharp must have missed every Lions game this year. Either that or he was a cornerback in a past life.

    In this article he opines that receivers are basically interchangeable and therefore Calvin Johnson does not deserve the money he will command.

    I admit he makes some sense when he talks about the financial aspects of paying that much money to a non-quarterback player. I disagree with his other premise. 

    Calvin Johnson is not the kind of receiver you can just replace. Any Lions fan knows this. How many receivers have been drafted by the Lions as "sure things," only to fail?

    The Lions history of drafting busts and signing free-agent failures are enough to prove Sharp's argument faulty.

    I think he needs to watch Johnson's game against the Saints again. Maybe that will knock some sense into him.