The football-watching world tuned in to see what star Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson would do in response to a subtle challenge by Dez Bryant, his Dallas Cowboys counterpart. NFL fans were treated to a performance so epic, Homer himself would have stood up and cheered.
Along their journey to a crucial upset, though, Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford had to overcome a series of brutal trials.
Between the two of them, they shared responsibility for three of the Lions' four turnovers. Bryant and the Cowboys ran up 20 second-half points, forcing Johnson and Stafford to challenge and break records just to keep up.
When Stafford's first try at a last-minute game-winning drive actually went backwards, ending with a failed 4th-and-12 conversion attempt, Lions fans headed to the exits by the thousands.
On the ensuing Cowboys possession, the Lions defense both held the Cowboys to a field goal and forced a clock-stopping holding penalty. The few Detroit fans who stayed saw a glimmer of hope shine through the Ford Field windows.
Stafford and Johnson sized up the 80-yard-tall cyclops standing between them and victory and cut it down to size in six plays and 50 seconds—all without the help of timeouts. After Johnson's 14th reception put the Lions on the Cowboys' 1-yard line, Stafford rushed his teammates to the line, frantically signalling that he would spike the ball.
But he didn't spike the ball:
With the gutsy, heads-up surprise quarterback sneak (that appeared to catch his teammates as off-guard as his opponents), Stafford ended another chapter of his record-breaking young career with an emphatic exclamation point.
Johnson's 39 yards on the final drive gave him an incredible 329 for the day—second-most in NFL history, per NFL.com, and tops for a game that ended in regulation.
The Cowboys players, coaches and football-watchers everywhere couldn't help but conclude that when these two are on, no force on Earth can stop them from achieving their objective.
The question remains: How do they get stopped so often?
Stafford's brilliant performance throwing the ball, and his wily game-winning play, will garner all the attention not given to Johnson's record-breaking day.
Buried beneath the headlines, though, was some truly ugly football by Stafford, Johnson and the Lions.
The Lions defense came to play, holding the Cowboys to a field goal for most of the first half. A frustrated Bryant went on a heated sideline rant, shouting at coaches and teammates alike:
Just as tensions were getting high, though, the Lions were melting down.
At the beginning of the second quarter, just past midfield, Stafford escaped the Cowboys pass rush and zipped a pass to Johnson. The ball bounced off of Johnson's hands, improbably landing in the waiting mitts of ball-hawking Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee.
In the closing minutes of the first half, the Lions were perched on the edge of the red zone, driving for a score that would give the Lions a commanding lead. Instead, Stafford threw another pick to Lee, who ran it back 50 yards:
Three plays later, Bryant hit paydirt—not only giving him the edge in his personal duel with Johnson, but turning a potential 14-3 halftime deficit into a 10-7 halftime lead.
The Lions' first drive of the second half drive ended with another self-inflicted wound. Running back Reggie Bush, casually holding the ball like a TV remote, coughed up a fumble to end yet another Lions drive in Cowboys territory.
On the next Lions drive, Stafford again hit Johnson well past the 50-yard line. Johnson was hit by Cowboys safety Barry Church, though, and fumbled—resulting in the Lions' fourth turnover in less than a half of football.
The Walls Breached
That's when the Lions defense, a fortress up until that point, finally gave way. After the Johnson fumble, the Lions allowed the Cowboys a second field goal. The score became 13-7, and the shootout many expected was finally on.
The Lions answered with a field goal of their own. The Cowboys responded three plays later with a lightning-quick 60-yard touchdown strike to rookie receiver Terrance Williams.
Stafford and the Lions came back with a seven-play, 3:54 touchdown drive. Tailback Joique Bell punched it in from the Cowboys' 1-yard line, making it 20-17.
Two plays later, Romo hit Bryant for a 50-yard touchdown strike:
Bryant would finish with three catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns, which, for most receivers, would be a great day at the office. The Cowboys took a 27-17 lead with less than seven minutes left in the game.
Stafford and the Lions, who scored just seven points in the first 46 minutes of football, now had to overcome a 10-point deficit with less than seven minutes on the clock.
That they did it—despite allowing yet another Cowboys field goal along the way—speaks to the Lions' limitless potential.
When Johnson is healthy, he's the best receiver in the NFL and as dangerous as any receiver has been. When Stafford is on, even his few flaws (freewheeling mechanics, "riverboat gambler" tendencies) become strengths. Just watch the two of them in action:
Add in one of the better pass-blocking offensive lines in the league—ranked seventh by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) going into this game—and a dangerous tailback tandem, and the Lions offense has the ability to score at will.
Missed Opportunities, Untapped Potential
The Lions have now scored 217 points on this season; going into Week 8, their total of 186 was sixth-best in the NFL. Now that the Lions have hung an incredible 24 fourth-quarter points on the Cowboys, though, the most stunning part of their limitless potential is how little of it they've realized.
Stafford and the Lions always seem to take several drives to get going. They've now scored 34 first-quarter points on the season; one quarter of 217 points is 54.25.
The Lions' high-powered, salary-cap-straining offense is built to give their defense an early lead, but instead, it is left hanging on for dear life until whatever needs to click, clicks.
Early missed opportunities cost Detroit a big win last week against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals, and a scoreless first quarter against the Arizona Cardinals contributed to a four-point loss there, too. The Lions were moving the ball with ease against the Cowboys, but turnover after turnover turned a possible big win into a death-defying escape act.
All of this is too reminiscent of 2012, when Stafford, Johnson and the Lions went 4-12. As Bill Barnwell of Grantland wrote, the Lions weren't just inconsistent last season, they were incredibly unlucky.
If not for one of the most improbable, impressive comebacks in a season full of them, the Lions would be sitting at .500 in one of the tightest divisions in the NFL. If not for their offense's maddening inconsistency, the Lions would be on top of that same division.
The Lions are too talented to be relying on Lady Luck regressing to the mean. If Stafford and Johnson can get past their habit of making it hard on themselves, the Lions could be making it look easy come January.