Inside Detroit's touchdown drive, capped by Stafford's unexpected dive
Every Tuesday this season, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players and coaches about what it meant, and why it mattered.
Having spent Sunday afternoon bellowing out line calls during Detroit's outrageous, 31-30 grand theft of a victory over the Cowboys, Lions center Dominic Raiola found himself having to raise his voice yet again, periodically, during our Monday evening phone conversation. In the background could be heard his three children, ages 12, eight and six. The kids were jacked up: the Raiolas are headed to Disneyland during Detroit's bye week.
Had they been there before? "Oh yeah. I love Disneyland," reports the 34-year-old, 13-year vet. "I'm just a big kid, I guess."
He was well suited, in that case, to deal with the amusement-park-ride of Sunday's game -- particularly the dramatic final minute, capped by quarterback Matthew Stafford's stealth sneak that fooled not just all of the Cowboys, who'd decided to take that particular play off, but also his own teammates.
By taking a 30-24 lead with 1:02 left to play, Dallas had turned down the volume at Ford Field and triggered an exodus for the parking lots. The Lions were on the verge of dropping to 4-4 and squandering one of the most transcendent single-game performances in NFL history. A moment of silent homage, please, for Calvin Johnson's 14-catch, 329-yard day. As Wayne and Garth proclaim: We're not worthy.
How grim was the mood as the Lions' offense prepared to take the field with 62 seconds, no timeouts and 80 yards between them and a second consecutive bitter defeat on their home turf?
Not as grim as you might think, reports Raiola: "When you have 81, 21 and No. 9 behind me" -- Johnson, Reggie Bush and Stafford -- "you're going to be in the game. I've seen this offense go down the field and score in two plays. I've seen it go down and score in five plays."
Do I hear six? On second-and-10, Stafford steps up in the pocket and finds Johnson, who has settled into a seam over the middle. Plus 17. Running to the new line of scrimmage, a cordon of 300-pounders trotting alongside him, breathing hard, Stafford shouts "Clock, clock, clock!" This time, he does. Spike the ball to stop the clock, that is.
Next: possibly Stafford's most clutch throw of the afternoon, when the Lions absolutely had to have it. "We knew we had to get a big chunk," says Raiola, "and we knew it was probably going to have to be someone other than Calvin, because they were rolling the safeties to him, they were doing everything to stop him." A day later, he remained in awe of Stafford's throw: "Man, that ball came out like a laser. That was unreal."
Workmanlike wideout Kris Durham found himself inside a triangle of converging Cowboys when Stafford's pass hit him in stride 40 yards downfield. That strike seemed to stun the Cowboys, who were still reeling with 33 seconds left when Stafford went back to No. 81, who flashed open for a fraction of a second -- exactly the moment the ball arrived, before Johnson was clobbered by Carr and Jakar Hamilton, a rookie free safety in the game because Barry Church had tweaked a hamstring.
"Another dart," recalls Raiola. "The timing was perfect, and he put it in a perfect spot."
The ball was spotted inside the one-yard-line, and the game went through the looking glass.
Once again, Stafford led a pack of huffing big men up the field in a race against time, all the while shouting "Clock! Clock! Clock!" Looking backward, he appears to be screaming at a straggler. That would be left tackle Riley Reiff, who was still celebrating at midfield,under the impression that Johnson had scored.
With his quarterback and the entire Detroit sideline shouting at Reiff, the light finally went on for the 6'6", 313-pound second-year man, who ran a 5.16-second 40 at the 2012 NFL Combine but appeared to be travelling more swiftly still as he hauled ass towards his teammates on the goal line.
Settling into his stance, Reiff lined up flush against the left guard, no split between them. "If you look at it, we're all shoe-to-shoe," says Raiola. That's the formation of choice when the quarterback intends to spike the ball and stop the clock, as 21 players on the field assumed Stafford was about to do.
Certainly the Cowboys were hoping for a respite. "They were gassed," says Raiola. "They were just kind of standing there. Ninety-six [Nick Hayden] kind of just dove a little. [Jason] Hatcher, one of the better defensive tackles in the League, kind just stood up. They were thinking, OK, we get a break here." Indeed, the Cowboys behaved as if the two teams had struck some sort of gentleman's agreement: You guys stop the clock, we'll all take a blow, then get back to business.
Stafford was not privy to that arrangement. In a bracing show of opportunism and guts -- if he doesn't score, it's highly unlikely Detroit gets off another play -- he surveyed the situation, took Raiola's snap and pogoed up and over the center, thrusting the ball through the plane while the Cowboys reacted like so many dynamited fish.
Just to be sure, Stafford sprinted around left end and scored again, in case the first one hadn't counted. He was escorted -- pushed, actually -- by Bush, who has a history of providing such assistance.
Confusion reigned -- but not in the mind of umpire Paul King, who immediately signaled touchdown, with 12 seconds left in the game. "I still didn't know what was happening," recounts Raiola. "I was just starting to get my bearings, and they're replaying the play."
All scoring plays get reviewed. "But I don't know why they went under the hood. It was pretty clear cut that he crossed the plane."
While the officials sorted things out, head coach Jim Schwartz was alertly instructing the offense huddle up. His point: if the zebras ruled that Stafford hadn't scored, 10 seconds would be subtracted from the clock, leaving the Lions two seconds to snap the ball.
It didn't come to that. The touchdown stood, Dez Bryant melted down a second time as the Cowboys fell to .500, and the Lions improved to 5-3 -- looking more and more, in the process, like the playoff team they were two years ago.
Raiola wasn't looking that far ahead. He was just relieved to get the taste of that heartbreaker against the Bengals out of his mouth. He was happy that he wouldn't be going on vacation with a loss hanging over his head. He was going to Disneyland.