Inside the Metrodome's cramped visitor's locker room, there were all the signs of a franchise reborn. Wide receiver Nate Burleson provided the sound track, hovering over a thumping stereo system, his fingers gliding across an iPad. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch stood across the way, a vision of whimsy in Superman boxers. And Matthew Stafford, a baseball cap worn backwards, stood before a podium and tried to come up with the perfect description for a superstar teammate, game-breaking receiver Calvin Johnson.
"Calvin," Stafford said finally, "just does those things."
On Sunday "those things" included a 40-yard over-the-shoulder catch in overtime that had observers talking long after the Lions defeated the Vikings 26--23 for their first 3--0 start since 1980. After snaring two second-half touchdown passes to help erase a 20--0 deficit, Johnson was split left on the Lions' 46-yard line on the first possession of overtime, one-on-one against cornerback Cedric Griffin. The 6'5" Johnson ran a go route, looked for the ball over his right shoulder and corralled it with his fingertips while falling to the ground. On the next play Jason Hanson booted a 32-yard field goal for the win, Detroit's first in Minneapolis since 1997.
"I saw that it was Cover 3, where they single up on the outside," Johnson said of the coverage. "I just went up and got it."
Johnson makes it sound simple—and he makes it look that way too. On the Lions' first score Stafford lofted a rainbow toward the goal line, where Johnson spun, leaped and came down with the ball over cornerback Chris Cook. "There are times in games when I have to remind myself that I'm not a fan," Burleson says. "The only other player I've ever had to do that with is Randy Moss."
Johnson, 26, has been a dangerous weapon since he came to the Lions as the second pick out of Georgia Tech in 2007, but never has he been part of such a well-balanced air attack. His 16 receptions are tied for the team lead with tight end Brandon Pettigrew's, and running back Jahvid Best has 15. Throw in Burleson, and the Lions are the only team besides the Patriots with four receivers who have as many as 14 catches. "This organization has done a great job putting together this puzzle," says Burleson, who signed as a free agent from Seattle before last season. "When [opposing coaches go] to the sideline and look at their printouts, who do they look at as the point of emphasis to stop? It's tough."
The 3--0 start has Detroit fans—who three years ago watched as their team became the first in NFL history to go 0--16—thinking of the postseason, but there is some cause for concern: The Lions have struggled to run the ball (20 yards on 19 carries against Minnesota), and they still have four games against division bullies Green Bay and Chicago. Still, they are talented, young and unafraid. Says center Dominic Raiola, "There is nothing that can happen on the field that this offense, defense and special teams can't overcome."
After three impressive wins, few would argue.