Matthew Stafford's Lions rise as Dez Bryant's Cowboys flail

As the Detroit Lions took their final timeout with 1:14 remaining in Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, veteran linebacker Stephen Tulloch knew his team faced a daunting set of circumstances.

Trailing by three and powerless to stop the clock as the Cowboys prepared to snap the ball on third-and-14 from the Lions' 35-yard line, Tulloch expected Dallas quarterback Tony Romo to take a knee and bleed the clock to about 30 seconds, leaving the home team in a major bind.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Detroit Lions' 31-30 win over the Dallas Cowboys from Week 8 on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. ET.

Then again, given the penchant for untimely self-destruction the Cowboys have displayed during Tulloch's eight-year career, something told him to keep hope alive.

"I thought they would take a knee on third down to drain the clock -- then kick a field goal, squib it, play prevent defense, make a couple of tackles inbounds and it's over," Tulloch said Sunday night, long after leaving Ford Field following perhaps the most entertaining game of the 2013 season. "But the Cowboys always find a way (to mess it up) -- you know that."

After the Lions had pulled out a stunning 31-30 victory that might dramatically affect the fortunes of two flawed but dangerous NFC contenders, a football-watching nation's collective awareness of the Cowboys' choking tendencies was painfully acute.

"Wasn't that (expletive) crazy?" Tulloch asked, his voice still rising with excitement. "This team fights every week, and we fight to the finish, but we didn't know if that chance would come."

Having given Detroit an opening with a horrid holding penalty, Dallas was done in by quarterback Matthew Stafford's moxie and receiver Calvin Johnson's peerless excellence -- not to mention its own chaotic sideline atmosphere and a growing sense of self-doubt. While the Cowboys (4-4), the NFL's poster children for mediocrity, remained atop the pathetic NFC (L)East, the Lions (5-3) closed the day a half-game behind the Packers in the NFC North.

Were the regular season to end today, both teams would make the playoffs, Detroit for the second time in three campaigns after a drought that dated to the 1999 season. And while a lot can happen between now and January, this was a sweet Sunday for the Lions, whose dramatic comeback triumph reaffirmed an internal sense that, despite an utterly forgettable 2012, they're capable of defying conventional wisdom and competing for a championship.

For a team whose coach (Jim Schwartz) and general manager (Martin Mayhew) are perceived to be in win-or-else situations in 2013, this was the type of improbable victory that can galvanize a locker room.

Conversely, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett will be second-guessed internally and externally for his decision to call a running play on third-and-14, even though the choice wasn't as clear-cut as it might have seemed in retrospect.

Had Garrett opted to have Romo kneel behind the line of scrimmage, Dan Bailey's field-goal try would have come from roughly 55 yards out -- and with a missed kick, Detroit would have taken possession at its own 45, needing only a field goal to tie. (Or, if Garrett had chosen to punt on fourth down, the Lions likely would have needed to go at least 50 yards in 30 seconds -- without a timeout -- to set up a potential tying kick.)

Instead, Garrett went with a handoff to halfback Phillip Tanner, who burst up the middle for 9 yards. That would have been a wonderful result -- had left tackle Tyron Smith not been flagged for holding. The clock stopped at 1:07 even after Schwartz declined the penalty, leaving Bailey to convert a 44-yard field-goal attempt for a 30-24 lead.

"When we saw the flag," Tulloch said, "we knew we had a chance."

After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, Detroit took over at its 20 with 1:02 to go, and Stafford (33 of 48 for 488 yards on the afternoon), who'd previously given up two interceptions, delivered strong and accurate throws with the game on the line. After a 17-yard pass to Johnson and a clock-killing spike, Stafford found a hole in the Cowboys' Cover 2 zone along the left sideline and dropped a gorgeous dime to wideout Kris Durham, who got out of bounds following a 40-yard gain.

With 33 seconds remaining and the ball at the Dallas 23, there was little doubt Stafford would look Johnson's way. Sure enough, the game's preeminent receiver made his 14th catch of the day and was taken down 1 yard short of the end zone.

Then, after racing his team to the line for a clock-killing spike, Stafford made an executive decision: He took the snap and audibilized on the fly, lunging the ball across the goal line while catching the Cowboys -- and his teammates -- completely off guard.

"Matt, he (expletive) went over -- crazy," Tulloch said. "He made the sacrifice, cause he knew how much it meant."

It meant that -- after David Akers' extra-point kick with 12 seconds to go and one last, futile Cowboys play from scrimmage -- Detroit had pulled off a statistical anomaly: The Lions won a game in which they had given up four turnovers and their opponent had given up none, marking the first time that'd happened since the Patriots turned the same trick against the Dolphins in 2007.

Prior to Sunday, in games played since the start of the 2011 season, teams that had a turnover differential of minus-four or worse were 1-54 (the Falcons beat the Cardinals in Week 11 last season with a differential of minus-five).

If the Lions bucking that trend was enough to unhinge the Cowboys, who'd taken a 10-point lead on Romo's 50-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant with 6:45 remaining, well, Dallas was in the process of losing it even prior to blowing the lead. Bryant had a couple of sideline tantrums, one coming before his second touchdown catch of the day and the other after, that had to be defused by teammates and coaches.

One source of pressure might have been the realization that, after having said before the game, "I believe I can do whatever (Johnson) can do," Bryant was watching his Lions counterpart make him look silly, accumulating a ridiculous 329 receiving yards -- second only to Flipper Anderson's single-game NFL record of 336 yards for the Rams in 1989.

Conversely, Johnson -- at least, in Tulloch's estimation -- wasn't caught up in the comparison.

"Nah, man -- Calvin's not that kind of guy," Tulloch insisted. "He hates talking to the media. He doesn't buy into that crap. Even after the game, we gave him the game ball, and we yelled, 'Speech, speech, speech!' and chanted 'Calvin, Calvin, Calvin.'

"He said, 'Man, what do you want me to say?' He doesn't talk. He just works. I feel like telling him, 'Do you realize who you are, and what you're doing, and what kind of impact you're having on the game of football?' I wish there were more like him."

Before ending our conversation and heading happily into the Lions' bye week, Tulloch expressed another wish.

"Hey Mike," he said, "don't jump on the bandwagon now. We've been a good team now, brother, but most people didn't want to see that. They were all, 'They're no good. ... Fire Schwartz ...' and all that stuff. Now they want to talk us up cause we won a game? I hate when that happens."

Alas, that would be considered the NFL's version of a first-world problem -- as is the team's top-10 standing on our weekly best-to-Jax assessment of the pro-football mosaic:

1) Seattle Seahawks: If Pete Carroll is such a Larry Fitzgerald fan -- and if the veteran receiver is, in fact, *in play* after this season -- can't you picture Fitzgerald catching passes in neon green gloves come 2014?

2) Kansas City Chiefs: Are the Chiefs living a charmed life -- and should Brock Osweiler get ready for their Nov. 17 visit to Mile High, just in case?

3) New Orleans Saints: How mentally and physically tough is Jimmy Graham -- and how tough is it for this organization to justify not signing him to a lucrative contract extension sometime in the next few months?

4) Denver Broncos: With the nickname "The Mastermind" being dredged up in conjunction with Mike Shanahan's return to Denver on Sunday to face his former team, can I finally get some royalties?

5) Indianapolis Colts: If the Colts face the Patriots in the playoffs, will Vontae Davis sneak in some extra film study by watching football on his phone?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New England Patriots' 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins from Week 8 on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. ET.

6) New England Patriots: Is Tom Brady tempted to tell former teammate Troy Brown to talk to his perfect hand?

8) Cincinnati Bengals: Did anyone see Sunday's Marvin Jones magic coming -- and how scary is it that he'll perpetually be Cincinnati's *other* receiver?

9) Green Bay Packers: Now that this team has a running game, is another Super Bowl run realistic?

10) Detroit Lions: If Louis Delmas blasts this Doors classic on his home stereo system, does housemate Kevin Ogletree sprint outside upon hearing Jim Morrison croon "Mr. Mojo Risin' "?

11) Chicago Bears: Yo, Martellus Bennett: How do you *really* feel about Brandon Meriweather -- and how many players around the NFL quietly want you to "punch him in the face"?

12) Dallas Cowboys: Why do I get the sneaking suspicion that after Sunday, Jerry Jones has amended his belief that Reggie Bush is the Lions' most dangerous offensive player?

13) New York Jets: Who got roughed up worse: the Jets' defensive backs (by the Bengals) or the team's fan base (by Pam Oliver)?

14) Baltimore Ravens: Is the Ravens' passing game in deep trouble?

15) Carolina Panthers: Hey, Steve Smith: Shouldn't Superman be good at checkers *and* chess, or is that more of a Clark Kent thing?

16) Tennessee Titans: After Bud Adams' passing, why do I get the sense that FedEx founder Fred Smith would like to acquire the franchise via next-day delivery?

17) San Diego Chargers: After disgraced Olympic track champion Marion Jones spoke to the Chargers last week, how great would it have been if she'd revealed herself as Manti Te'o's real girlfriend?

18) Miami Dolphins: On how many levels did Mike Pouncey get served in Foxborough on Sunday -- and will Aaron Hernandez soon bust out a "Free Pouncey" hat?

19) Arizona Cardinals: What's less likely after Sunday: Rashard Mendenhall getting his starting job back from rookie Andre Ellington, or Ellington becoming one-tenth as good a quote as ex-Cards (and ex-Colts) running back Edgerrin James?

20) Oakland Raiders: Given that defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, in the words of coach Dennis Allen, is "able to take something that might seem complicated and make it as simple as he can for the players," can we now conclude that he provides the same service for officials?

21) Buffalo Bills: If C.J. Spiller's contention that there's "no feud" between him and Doug Marrone is accurate, is it reasonable to assume that the head coach must not have Spiller on his fantasy team?

22) Cleveland Browns: If the Browns don't think Jeff Garcia's proposed comeback would give their struggling offense a jolt, can we at least agree that it might liven up the Cleveland club scene?

24) Philadelphia Eagles: Is Chip Kelly's cutting-edge offense going nowhere fast?

25) Atlanta Falcons: Does Matty Icemelt in the desert or what?

26) Houston Texans: Are ex-Texans rookies Sam Montgomery, Cierre Wood and Willie Jefferson merely misunderstood cigar aficionados, or were they getting their Cheech and Chong on in the team hotel last weekend -- and unwittingly creating a perfect metaphor for Houston's season?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Denver Broncos' 45-21 win over the Washington Redskins from Week 8 on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

27) Washington Redskins: Whose approval ratings are lower in the nation's capital right now: Texas Senator Ted Cruz's or Mike Shanahan's?

28) New York Giants: Was Zak DeOssie paying homage to Trey Junkin late in Sunday's victory at Philly, or was he just trying to give the Eagles a sporting chance?

29) Pittsburgh Steelers: If football fields were 10 miles long, would the Steelers' defense still be chasing Terrelle Pryor?

30) Minnesota Vikings: Yo, Greg Jennings: In retrospect -- and in the wake of Sunday night's defeat at Mall of America Field -- do you find Aaron Rodgers' leadership style a bit more tolerable?

31) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: When Greg Schiano told his players they were stuck with him last week, was someone there to translate it into Spanish?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: Could this team beat the 2008 Lions -- and can any coach survive an 0-16 season?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.