EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In the lower tunnels of MetLife Stadium, in the aftermath of a game this franchise has seen go the other way far too many times, Lions head coach Dan Campbell briefly strolled into the visiting locker room with a smirk on his face. By then, Campbell’s postgame media obligations had already been fulfilled. His speech to his team had already been delivered. A flight back home awaited. But first, a detour.
Campbell was passing through to get from Point A to Point B, as his players explained to inquiring minds how this team continues to win. With his brown travel bag resting on his shoulder, ready for a smooth plane ride home, Campbell glanced at the remaining players in the locker room. He nodded at them, smirk and all. They did the same. No words were exchanged.
It’s the sort of silent communication that speaks volumes when things are going your way. His team is maturing at a rapid pace, making winning plays week in and week out. Campbell sees it. A 20-17 victory over the Jets was the latest example.
“I don’t know if we would have made those plays earlier in the year,” Campbell said of the plays that defined an unlikely comeback win in New York. “It would have gone the other way. That just shows we’re getting more mature. We’re becoming more disciplined in critical moments. That’s big.”
The Lions (7-7) began the year 1-6. They’ve since gone 6-1 — flipping the script of a lost season and allowing for meaningful football. This is the hottest team in the NFL. They’re inching closer to a playoff spot with every win, learning more about themselves in the process.
Today’s lesson? They can win in more ways than one.
Lions defeat Jets to keep playoff hopes alive
The Lions, one of the better offensive teams in the league, had to survive on Sunday without their typical high-powered offense and explosive plays. Those familiar with this Jets defense knew that might be the case. New York entered the day ranked third in total defense, fourth in passing yards allowed and fifth in scoring defense. Conversely, the Lions ranked fourth in total offense, eighth in passing offense and fifth in scoring offense.
Something had to give. The Lions gave a lot.
An impressive opening drive on which the Lions marched all the way down to the New York 1 could’ve been a statement to open the game. Instead, a failed fourth-and-1 conversion resulted in a turnover on downs and an empty possession. It snapped a streak of 19 consecutive successful goal-to-go conversions. Not ideal, but then this happened four plays later, following a three-and-out forced by the defense:
Kalif Raymond punt return to the crib! ?
?: #DETvsNYJ on CBS
?: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/nW0d7KOLXR pic.twitter.com/7RwcAyOZfY
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
Lions wide receiver Kalif Raymond scored the first punt return touchdown of his career, running the ball back 47 yards. Raymond, a former Jets receiver who has been in the league since 2016, has been close to breaking one off a few times this season. His coaches and teammates felt it was only a matter of time. An extra block or two can make all the difference, and take a look at the one by rookie linebacker James Houston at the end of the return. The play was mature beyond his years, paving the way for Raymond and a 7-0 Lions lead. In a game expected to be low-scoring, it made all the difference.
“Lif’s been a baller all year,” wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Every chance he gets, I feel like he makes the most of it. One of the best teammates I’ve ever been around my whole life — from high school to college to the league, he’s one of the best dudes. … I know he’s been waiting for this punt return his whole life. He said that’s all he really wants is to score on a punt return. I’m so happy that he did because it changed the game for us.”
Every week, it feels like someone different is making a game-changing play to extend the Lions’ lead, seize momentum or buy some time. This one bought some time while the offense figured things out. The defense did, too.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Aaron Glenn’s defense continues to limit scoring opportunities. Of course, the Jets were without starting quarterback Mike White, leaving Zach Wilson as QB1 for the afternoon. But the Lions didn’t allow this to turn into a statement game for Wilson. Instead, they sacked him four times. They forced the Jets to punt six times. Cornerback Jerry Jacobs recorded his first interception of the season, a gift from Wilson that turned into three points for the Lions. And they allowed only 17 points on the road.
Over the first six games of the season, Detroit’s defense allowed 32.1 points per game. The last seven? Just 19.9.
“When we needed it, our defense played pretty dang good, let’s start there,” Campbell said. “There were a couple of things that we gave up, but man, they fought.”
That sort of effort was all too important Sunday, considering the issues their offensive counterparts were having. Truthfully, it was an ugly day for the offense in so many ways. It failed to capitalize in the red zone, going 0-for-3 inside the 20. It was 5-of-15 on third down. The offense failed to score a touchdown through the first 58 minutes and change. Through it all, the Lions either led or were tied for the majority of the game — until a fourth-quarter score by the Jets put New York up 17-13 with 4:41 to go. At that point, down by four, they needed a touchdown drive to win. Could they get it?
It didn’t look like it initially. That drive began with a brutal drop by tight end Brock Wright — one that would’ve been an easy first down with room. Perhaps an earlier version of this Lions team might’ve had trouble overcoming an error like that. This one keeps it moving.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘Just reset and finish,’” Wright said of his drop. “I didn’t have my best game, obviously; a lot of plays I want back. (But) I was just telling myself, ‘finish.’”
Wright, Goff and the offense remained calm. They simply regrouped. With the ball around midfield, facing a fourth-and-1 they needed to convert, the circumstances set up what we could look back on as a season-defining moment.
Question for the class: How many times have you seen one like this end in spectacularly poor fashion?
Not on this day. Not these Lions.
Made the Wright play on 4th down!#DETvsNYJ | ? CBS pic.twitter.com/RkLdogmS3S
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 18, 2022
Just when you thought this playoff push was over before it really got going, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson pulled this one out of his back pocket. It featured Wright selling a block before slipping out to the flat. The Jets had covered St. Brown — Goff’s first read on the play. So the veteran quarterback quickly worked back to Wright, who caught it in stride and was virtually untouched on his way to the end zone.
At that moment, a silence fell over MetLife Stadium. This touchdown gave the Lions a 20-17 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
That was different.
It kept the Lions’ playoff hopes alive and well. As did one final defensive stop, in which Detroit recorded two sacks — one by John Cominsky and another by Romeo Okwara — and withstood a 58-yard field goal attempt with one second remaining, potentially tying the game. Wide left.
Again, that was different.
This team knows it.
“A lot of these close games are starting to lean more towards us than they are towards them, and that hasn’t always been the case around here,” Goff said after the game. “I think we’re starting to believe in each other. Well, not starting to — we fully believe in each other. (We) just know somebody is going to make a play to do something right, and that’s half the battle. And that’s showing off for us a lot right now.”
Let’s talk playoff picture, since the Lions have matured enough over these last seven weeks to firmly force their way into the discussion. Detroit is tied with the Seahawks for eighth in the NFC playoff standings, though Seattle owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. Depending on the loser of Giants-Commanders, the Lions will end Week 15 0.5 games back of the NFC’s No. 7 seed — the final playoff spot. All three of Detroit’s remaining opponents own sub-.500 records. We’re due for a fascinating ending, no matter what happens.
NFL playoff picture at Week 15: Chiefs win AFC West, stay in hunt for No. 1 seed
What’s most impressive about this recent run? Not only are the Lions winning — they’re proving capable of winning in different ways. It hasn’t always been the same game plan. It hasn’t always been the same guys stepping up. A team with a thin margin for error has to be versatile in the ways it wins.
Campbell had never won a road game as Lions head coach before Nov. 3. He now has won three. Campbell’s Lions were favored by 2 1/2 points over a 10-2 Vikings team in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. They won by 11 and never trailed. The Lions have had comfortable victories over the Jaguars (winning by 26) and Giants (13), and they’ve also won tight. Campbell began his Lions tenure 2-9-1 in one-score games. He has since gone 3-1 in his last four one-score games, with victories over the Packers, Bears and Jets. The loss? To the Bills on Thanksgiving, 28-25.
The Lions made mistakes in this game that could prove costly if they’re not cleaned up. There were bad penalties that hurt them. Too many big plays allowed by the secondary. The offense will need to be better, despite the Jets defense proving to be a worthy sparring partner. Campbell and his players will be the first to admit that, even amid the high of another hard-earned victory.
But this is now a three-game season. Everything is on the table. The playoffs are within reach.
This was another test passed along the way.
“When you start playing pretty good football, that happens,” Campbell said. “It’s a credit to our coaches and our guys. I’ve got some great coordinators and some great assistant coaches. And the players, man, they’re fueling it. They’re starting to feel it. They’re taking ownership into this team and we’re getting better because of it.”
(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)