Back by popular demand this summer, it's the Detroit Lions "Ten Best" countdown. Every Monday over the next two months, we'll not only be counting down the best games, but also the best plays of last season. All of this will lead into our positional previews, which should take us through training camp and the preseason. Then, its finally time to play some football!
Closing in on a playoff birth, the Detroit Lions needed to win a pivotal road game in December to stay above water. This wasn't just any road contest, however. It was a full fledged battle with "The Black Hole" and some of the toughest fans in the NFL. That's tough duty.
The Oakland Raiders, oddly enough, were in the midst of a similar season in 2011. After several years of futility and emotionally losing owner Al Davis earlier in the year, the team had traded for quarterback Carson Palmer, signaling that they were all in. The Raiders were attempting to emerge from a bunched up AFC West that no team wanted to win. Both Oakland and Detroit badly needed this pre-Christmas tilt for momentum sake, and in the standings. With one week remaining in the regular season, the clock was ticking. By the end of this affair, one team's postseason dream would live and the other's would die.
As was often the case in 2011, the opposition struck first and whipped the already rabid crowd into a frenzy. Louis Murphy continued the trend of running backs pounding the Lions' defensive line, busting through for the 12 yard icebreaking score. Calvin Johnson quickly responded by hauling in a long bomb, knotting the game at 7-7. In the second quarter, the Raiders got a long touchdown of their own from speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey to pull ahead 14-7, but Nate Burleson squared the score with a nice catch and run. The massive leg of Sebasitan Janikowski bumped Oakland on top by three at halftime, but the Lions remained in the game.
The second half saw much more of a defensive stalemate. Despite drives and pressure, neither team got into the end zone in the third quarter. In the fourth, that would change fast. Janikowski powered through a 51 yard field goal, giving the Raiders a six point advantage. The Lions could not answer fast, as the offense stalled repeatedly. Late in the fourth, backed up close to the goal line, Matthew Stafford was rushed and sacked, fumbling the ball. Aaron Curry, the player Detroit passed on to select Stafford, ironically scooped it up and scored. It was looking like lights out for the Lions.
Yet, as was also often the case in 2011, the Lions had plenty of late magic left. This time, an early Christmas miracle unfolded, as the gutty Stafford led his team back despite the noise, chaos and confusion. Detroit went 71 yards in 10 plays to get back into the game with a Titus Young touchdown catch. After getting the ball back, the Lions were backed up to the full fury of the crowd once more. Stafford wasn't fazed, as he led a clutch, 98 yard drive and hit Johnson for the game winning score. Included were examples of Stafford's grit, as he scrambled for a late fourth down conversion. Ushering in unhappy memories of 2000 against Chicago, however, the Raiders had one last chance. Janikowski attempted an impossible looking field goal to win the game from somewhere near San Diego. However, Ndamukong Suh's big paw knocked the ball down in mid-air, and the Lions escaped Oakland with a massive win.
Who were these guys? The Lions had once again rallied to win a game they seemed destined to lose while playing on the road. This time, the victory moved the team one step closer to their playoff goal, and set the fans up for a frenzy the following weekend. As character wins go, this late season beauty rates high. Fans were fired up, and rightfully so. Their Lions could now win games in December to stay in a playoff race. The playoff race was real, and not just a figment of their overzealous, hopeful imaginations.
Times, they were a changin' indeed.
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