Matthew Stafford's gutsy comeback in Detroit was one for the ages
Matthew Stafford's best play was eluding medical staff to get back on the field
Hank Poteat beats out Andre Caldwell and others for goat of the week
The Jets needs to bench Mark Sanchez, plus more things I think I think
NEW YORK -- Talking with commissioner Roger Goodell, while he was getting his makeup wiped off in our NBC Football Night in America studio Sunday night after his Eagles-Bears halftime appearance ...
"You know how great you have it in the NFL this year?'' I asked. "Your TV ratings are totally through the roof, and here we are today, worst game of the year, Cleveland-Detroit, and it might be the best game of the year.''
"Terrific game,'' he said. "Fantastic game. Matt [Stafford] is such a good kid, so good for that franchise. That kind of a game can be a game-changer -- not just today, but for the Lions' franchise.''
Last week it was a 35-34 game between the Colts and Patriots that captured America. Yesterday it might have been the bizarro-world 38-37 thing that played out in Ford Field. We'll start there, then meander through the play Kansas City coach Todd Haley drew up in the dirt (slight exaggeration) to beat the World Champions. Then it's onto a scene you purple lovers will love ... Aaron Rodgers' progression out of sackdom ... then Goodell will rail against the endless offseason programs ... you'll meet a more mature Vince Young ... I'll have a couple of last words on Patriots-Colts ... and ... and ... well, that'll be just about enough for the top.
Bobby Layne would be proud.
Those are the exact words I said to Stafford as Detroit medics finished putting a harness on his left shoulder and a sling on his arm in the postgame locker room. Layne's the blood-and-guts Lions quarterback who preceded Stafford by 50 years at Highland Park (Texas) High, and then by half a century as the Lions quarterback. Before Stafford and I started talking, I could hear the labored breathing and slight grunts -- I assume from Stafford -- as the harness went on his shoulder. X-rays were negative, but you could read his lips after he threw the winning touchdown and went to the sideline in intense pain. "It's out! It's out!'' he said, meaning his shoulder popped out of the socket.
Now I understand the wounded Lions fans. I hear from so many of you. The hopelessness, the anti-Matt Millenism, the surrender, the longing simply to be relevant again. And Goodell's right. This might have been something big right here. Not saying the Lions are on the road to contention. But they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take the losing anymore, and they know after Sunday they have the kind of braveheart quarterback a battling city like Detroit has been awaiting. And so that's why I choose this morning to write about the second win of the Detroit Lions at the top of the column, rather than the 10th victory for the Saints and the Colts. The moment was just so abnormal, so fascinating.
The game came down to two plays. You've seen them, I'm sure. With eight seconds left and Cleveland up 37-31 (thanks to Brady Quinn's four touchdown passes), Detroit had the ball at Cleveland 32. Second down. The smart play would have been a 15-yard out to get closer to the end zone, and then a final shot to try to win. Stafford took the snap and looked. Then got chased out of the pocket to his left.
"Throw the ball!'' screamed coach Jim Schwartz. Stafford was only a few strides away from him.
Nope. Stafford now ran back toward midfield, looking for a receiver.
"Throw the ball!'' screamed Schwartz again.
Stafford stopped. Two rushers got ready to cream him. Defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, all 305 pounds of him, was two feet away and closing fast when Stafford finally let the ball go toward the left corner of the end zone. Bang! Mosley drove Stafford as hard as a quarterback can be driven into the ground. The ball fluttered into the air, right into the arms of safety Brodney Pool.
"Game's over,'' Stafford said. "I was sure it was, even though I was on the ground and pretty much in a lot of pain. Then I heard there was a flag.''
Seems that Browns nickel back Hank Poteat tackled wideout Calvin Johnson in the end zone, thinking physical play was OK because Stafford had left the pocket. "No! No!'' one of the officials kept saying over and over to Poteat. "Pass interference!''
But because Stafford lay on the field and caused a stoppage in play, Detroit was charged with a timeout. It didn't have one, that was the Lions' fourth charged timeout of the half ... but because time had expired, the Lions would not be penalized five yards, not penalized by having time run off the clock. [Only on a fifth timeout of a half -- three timeouts followed by two due to injury -- does yardage actually get marked off.]
Meanwhile, Stafford was ushered to the Lions sideline, where four team medics began to examine him. In the game went backup Daunte Culpepper. Detroit would have one, last, untimed play at the one-yard-line because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty. Culpepper began to call signals.
Then Cleveland coach Eric Mangini called timeout, and proceeded to appeal to the officials about something. The non-runoff of time on the clock? The pass interference? I don't know. After the game, he said he took the timeout to see if he had the right personnel package on the field for the last play.
"I was flat on my back on the sidelines, and the doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with my shoulder,'' said Stafford. "But I heard, 'Timeout Cleveland,' and then I knew I could come back in.''
An injured player who leaves the field has to sit for at least one play -- unless there is a charged timeout by either team. Stafford knew. And he immediately began trying to get up, but the doctors kept telling him, basically, to hold on, hoss -- he wasn't authorized to go back in. But Stafford got up and weaved his way onto the field, telling offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to call a pass play if he wanted, because he had one play left in him.
"Only one,'' Stafford said. "But I knew I had one. I had the adrenalin going.'' He jogged onto the field and Culpepper jogged back off.
Meanwhile, Schwartz hollered at his medical staff: "Is he good to go?'' And one of the doctors said no, and Schwartz asked what was wrong, and the doc said he didn't know because they hadn't had time to examine him yet.
"The kid put himself back in the game,'' Schwartz said.
Lord knows what the Browns thought the wounded Stafford would call, but tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a fellow first-round pick in 2009, ran a short square-in at the back of the end zone, and Stafford flicked it to him. Ballgame.
"His best play wasn't the last play, or the second-to-last,'' Schwartz told me. "His best play was eluding four of our medical guys to get back onto the field.''
"Ever been in a game like that?'' I asked Stafford.
"No,'' he said. "Has there been one like that?''
Not that I've seen.
Todd Haley pulls one out of left field.
The Chiefs install their red-zone pass plays on Thursday mornings. Usually they're pulled out of the phone-book-thick playbook, plays that were taught in minicamps, practiced in training camp and used, most likely, a few times previously during the season. But last Thursday, Haley walked into the offensive team meeting and told his team he had something new to use against the Steelers down near the goal line -- a shovel pass to running back Jamaal Charles while the rest of the team was in max-protect mode. He figured the Steelers D, close to its own goal line, would try to pressure K.C. quarterback Matt Cassel into a mistake. He figured right.
With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh led 24-17, and the Chiefs had first-and-goal from the Steelers' two. When Haley called the play into Cassel's helmet, Cassel's first reaction was, "Touchdown.''
"They're tough on the goal line, obviously,'' said Cassel. "We thought the defensive line would come hard, and they did.'' Charles snuck out of the backfield, almost looking like he feigned a bad block, and he was alone, near the one, when Cassel found a gap between the center and guard in the midst of the chaos and shoveled it to Charles. Perfect call. Perfectly run. "Usually it doesn't happen that a play happens just like you practice it," Cassel said, "but this was exactly the same.''
The touchdown made it 24-all. Kansas City kayoed Ben Roethlisberger in overtime, then drove 76 yards to the winning field goal. As Keith Olbermann said Sunday night, "Ryan Succop for the win, and oh, don't you look nice tonight, Mrs. Cleaver.''
"Amazing feeling,'' said Cassel. "The Steelers are a team we strive to be like. We've got a long way to go to get there, but this is a pretty good reward.''
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