Detroit Lions running back Kevin Smith, left, receives congratulations from quarterback Matthew Stafford after scoring the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarte rSunday in Detroit. Stafford threw three first-half interceptions, but in the end, he made the difference for the Lions.
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DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford finished the game right about the same place he started it.
But he's the Comeback Kid, a gunslinger who keeps firing, fear long forgotten, failure never a consideration. So, the way it all started and the way it finished, of course, were two different things.
The Lions, who authored four major, big-time comebacks a year ago in their turnaround season, started 2012 in a similar manner. Stafford marshaled two late and long touchdown drives, one to tie and one to win, the latter with just 10 seconds remaining, and Detroit sent St. Louis reeling, 27-23, Sunday at Ford Field.
Detroit drove just inside the Rams' 5 on the first possession of the game, but Stafford had a late and lazy pass for tight end Tony Scheffler picked off at the goal line by Janoris Jenkins, who brought it back 34 yards.
So that was one interception.
And then there was a second. And a third. And then Brandon Pettigrew dropped a couple passes. Kevin Smith did the same.
At halftime, St. Louis had five first downs and 91 yards of offense and led 13-10. Detroit, by the way, had 231 yards and 16 first downs.
"We talked a little bit," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "But just a little. Matt's smart. He knows. He just made a couple poor throws; it's not like he was playing badly. And the last two times we had the ball, I don't know if anybody's ever played better."
Stafford had a lousy game. And a great game. Same game, same guy.
He tied it with a five-play, 80-yard drive that featured three passes worth 62 yards to Pettigrew, the same tight end who had dropped a couple earlier.
"They were just dropping so deep," Stafford said of the Rams. "Their first line of defense in the secondary was 12, 15 yards deep sometimes. I just had to take what was there."
And then he won it from the St. Louis 5 to cap another 80-yard drive after the Rams had managed a field goal to move back ahead. There were a couple big gains on big passes to the big guy, Calvin Johnson. But the winner was a little pass out to running back Smith, to the exact same spot on the field where Stafford had been intercepted on the game's first drive. This time, though, there was no defender in any position to spoil it.
"I know in that formation Calvin is going to get all of the attention, and he did," Stafford said. "I just had to wait on it for a second, to let Kev get out there."
Smith was part of the play action and in protection as it all developed, and Schwartz joked that "he was the last option, probably behind 'throw it away.' Somehow he got wide open.
"There were 15 seconds at the snap, and that's time for three shots in the end zone as long as we're smart and [plays develop] fast. On the sideline I'm thinking, 'throw it away, throw it away,' because there's time for more. But Matt worked his way through the whole progression and then some."
It was all part of the quarterback mentality, like the 3-point shooter who misses everything he throws up, yet still wants the ball in his hands for a try at the buzzer.
"You don't want to have three [interceptions] in the first five games, so you sure don't want three in the first half of the first one," Stafford said. "But I trust my teammates, and my teammates trust me no matter what happens in the first half however bad I look. That's what being a team is all about."
Stafford said the three first-half interceptions were frustrating mostly "because we were moving the ball. We didn't have a punt in the first half, did we? We drove all the way down the field on the opening drive, and I turn it over. Then we drive it again and turn it over. That's frustrating, I know, for everybody.
"But we've been together for a little bit now, and guys believe in each other, and that's what it's all about. There's a belief from having done it a bunch of times. That two-minute drive is as fun as it gets in the NFL. No matter how [bad] a day you've had, being able to trust yourself and put those balls in there and have all those guys make plays is fun."
True, players make plays.
But for the Lions, win No. 1 became a reality because Stafford, even in those darkest, most frustrating moments, never lost faith in his team's biggest playmaker.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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