Only in the NFL do fortunes change faster than they do in a Las Vegas casino. A hot team one week is not the next. The forgotten fifth round pick turns into a fantasy stud. A coach who led his team to the playoffs the season prior finds himself on the unemployment line. New words and phrases are added to the vernacular like “The Dream Team” and “Tebow-ing”.
This year has been no exception. Beyond the nauseatingly over-publicized adventures of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, you have Eli’s bafflingly inconsistent Giants who likely just cost themselves a playoff spot with a JV Team-like performance against Washington. The New York Jets may finally have dug themselves a hole too deep, and the San Diego Chargers probably waited a week too long to start playing like the ’72 Dolphins as they will likely miss the playoffs.
And then there is the Detroit Lions. No team this season has exemplified the power of the NFL hype machine on both ends of the spectrum quite like them. A team that came into 2011 as the not-so-sleeper pick of so many “experts”, Detroit came roaring out of the gates at 5-0. Along the way they collected victories in what can only be described as shocking comebacks of 20+ points against Minnesota and Dallas.
Like the lottery winner who suddenly discovers family he never knew he had, the Lions became THE story of the NFL gaining local and national attention alike. The loveable losers were finally bursting through the chains of obscurity and carrying an entire city on their back (with a little help from their baseball brethren across the street at Comerica Park).
Their core of young talent (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Ndamukong Suh) provided the team and city a glimmer of football-related hope for the first time since Bill Clinton was calling the shots for America.
The Lions played a tough, ferocious style of football under head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Sure, they picked up a few personal foul penalties along the way, but it was part of their identity and the actions were largely celebrated. These were the new “Bad Boys”, but it was “all good”. The Lions Super Bowl odds were falling faster than Wal-Mart prices, going from 60-1 to under 10-1.
At 5-0, the Green Bay Packers may have been the best team, but nobody was getting more attention than the 5-0 Detroit Lions.
And then, as things so often do in the NFL, everything changed.
The Lions suffered their first loss of the season at home to the 49ers, followed quickly by Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh nearly going Cincinnati-Xavier on one another. Shortly thereafter, Best suffered another season-ending concussion. Stafford broke a finger on his throwing hand. Johnson stopped catching touchdowns. Detroit became one of the most penalized teams in football and certainly took more personal fouls than anyone. The Lions previously labeled “ferociousness” was now being tabbed as “dirty” and “reckless”. Coach Schwartz went from an evil genius to just evil.
But nobody embodied this transformation more than Ndamukong Suh. His questionable on field tactics were seemingly forever validated with his now infamous Thanksgiving Day stomp of Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. Suh, whose rise to NFL stardom had come quicker than any player on the defensive side of the ball in recent memory, seemingly was letting it all slip away. His stomp against Green Bay came when the game was only 7-0, but it lead to a tailspin for Detroit. The Packers went on to beat the Lions handily. Everything Suh had accomplished since being drafted second overall in 2010 felt as if it had been wiped away. He was banished for two games.
Without a suspended Suh, the Lions dropped their following game to the Saints and found themselves at 7-5. With what felt like 24 teams right behind the Lions jockeying for playoff position, it had seemingly struck midnight on Motown’s Cinderella story.
That’s the way it goes in the NFL.
And if not for a goal-line stop on the final play of the game two weeks ago against the Minnesota Vikings, the story of the 2011 Lions may have ended right there. They would have missed the postseason, been left with questions about personnel, team philosophies and maybe even leadership going forward.
But the Lions held on for the 34-28 win, setting up another must-win scenario in Oakland this past Sunday. Now anyone who watched the game knows that Detroit’s stunning come-from-behind victory was due in large part to career performances by Stafford and Johnson.
Trailing by 13 late in the fourth quarter, Stafford showed the type of leadership and moxie that Lions fans under 50 have probably never seen. His 98-yard drive in the final two minutes was legendary. It was Peyton Manning-esque. This is not a hyperbolic statement because within the context of the history of the Detroit Lions, that drive meant everything. Megatron transformed back into the unstoppable force he was earlier in the season, snaring balls, keeping his feet in bounds and making the extraordinary look ordinary.
But when a perfectly precise six-yard pass from Stafford found Johnson in the back of the end zone with 39 seconds left, it gave the Lions the 28-27 lead. It did not win them the game.
Re-enter Ndamukong Suh.
As Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski lumbered on the field to attempt an NFL-record 65-yard field goal on the game’s final play to give the Raiders the win, Lions fans were reliving nightmares of another famous kick. Tom Dempsey set the record back in 1970 for the Saints on a game winning 63-yard field goal, of course against the Lions.
The feeling of deja vu was well warranted, as Janikowski has the best leg in the game. He routinely makes 70 yarders during warm-ups. If he cut out the booze and sweets he would make a great striker or MMA fighter. But here he was, ready to sink the Lions’ season yet again.
Despite a good snap and hold, Janikowski’s kick fluttered and fell short of the crossbar. It had been blocked. Ndamukong Suh, for all his troubles and transgressions, got back to doing what made him an All-Pro in his rookie season: he made a game altering play.
Suh’s block not only won the Lions the game, but put Detroit one win away from clinching a playoff berth for the first time this Millennium. It may have even restored his image at the same time. Suh is no longer an after the whistle thug who just doesn’t get it; he is once again a ferocious defensive tackle whose brute strength and football IQ allow him to make plays that win games.
One game. One play.
That’s how fast fortunes change in the NFL.