CJ Moore was shocked when the play call came in.
It was fourth-and-8 early in the third quarter and the Detroit Lions had the ball at their own 26-yard line, up seven points in a game against the division rival Minnesota Vikings with their playoffs hopes on the line.
The Lions lost to the Vikings in September on a coaching decision that burns Dan Campbell to this day, and here the head coach was, in the game of the season, defying conventional wisdom again.
Moore, like most everyone else at Ford Field on Sunday, figured the Lions would punt and trust a defense that had played well in the first half.
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But Campbell called for a fake punt, and when the Vikings gave Lions the look they wanted, Moore took a direct snap and sprinted 42 yards down the home sideline.
“Man, gutsy,” Moore said after the game. “And it just shows how much confidence he has in us and when he when the call came in, I’m like, ‘Fourth-and-8, fourth-and-7, shit. All right, let’s go.’ So yeah, it just shows how gutsy he is and how much he believes in us, so we’re appreciative of that.”
Jared Goff threw his third touchdown pass of the game nine plays after Moore’s run, and the Lions went on to beat the Vikings, 34-23, to improve their playoff standing.
At 6-7, the Lions are 1½ games behind the New York Giants (7-5-1) for the NFC’s final wild-card spot. They have a 23% chance to make the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
The Lions have won five of six games since starting the season 1-6 – their past three victories coming by double-digits – and head into next week’s matchup with the New York Jets (7-6) brimming with confidence just like their coach.
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“I’m drained,” Campbell said. “But I’m excited, believe me. They – the guys know how I’ve felt all week about this game. But yeah, look I don’t think there’s a surprise here. I’ve said it before, it’s hard when you get down in the dumps and you were where we were at, it’s easy to lose faith. But these guys never did and we stayed true to what we’re about and they knew, they believed we were one play away and that’s where we’ve been.
“And so now we’re making the play, we’re making the one extra play. It’s not costing us. And we’re able to overcome some of these mistakes we were making earlier. So, no, our guys, they know they belong. They know when they play football like we’ve been playing the last six weeks, we can play with anybody. That’s the truth.”
The Lions’ rise from the NFL slums has been swift and complete.
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Goff is playing the best football of his career. He completed 27 of 39 passes for 330 yards and threw long touchdowns to Jameson Williams (for his first NFL catch) and DJ Chark behind Fort Knox-like protection from his offensive line.
The defense, among the NFL’s worst in the first half of the season, has turned into one of the most opportunistic units in the league. Isaiah Buggs forced a fumble near the goal line just before halftime, and the Lions got a key fourth-and-1 stop in the first quarter to set up their first touchdown.
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And Campbell is pushing all the right buttons as coach.
Along with Moore’s fake punt, he signed off on a tackle-eligible pass to Penei Sewell on third-and-7 at the two-minute warning, leading 31-23. Sewell made a twisting catch for a 9-yard gain and dove past the first down marker to keep the clock running and help clinch the Lions’ victory.
“Dude’s got some nuts on him, bro,” Sewell said. “Like, that’s as simple as that. I couldn’t find another word, but yeah, Dan Campbell’s going to be him and nobody’s going to change that and that’s what I love about him.”
The Lions jumped to an early 7-0 lead on Goff’s 41-yard touchdown pass to Williams on a broken coverage and never trailed. Williams, in his second game back from the torn ACL he suffered in his final college game in January, celebrated excitedly on the Lions sideline and handed the ball to his father for preservation.
His TD came two plays after Jeff Okudah stuffed Dalvin Cook for no gain on fourth-and-1.
The Vikings, who beat the Lions on a late touchdown after a missed 54-yard field goal in Week 3, tied the game at 7 on the ensuing possession, but Goff threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Chark midway through the second quarter.
Moore converted his fake drive on the Lions’ opening of the second half, leading to a 5-yard touchdown catch by Josh Reynolds, and Justin Jackson scored on a 15-yard run in the fourth quarter.
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Kirk Cousins finished 31 of 41 passing for 425 yards for the Vikings, who fell to 10-3. Justin Jefferson had 11 catches for 223 yards after being held to a career-low 14 yards on three catches against the Lions in September.
Goff had his second straight 300-yard passing day and fourth of the season, and Chark finished with six catches for 94 yards.
“This is one of those areas where you get a winner in here in Detroit and it’ll be something special,” Campbell said. “And it’s not like that everywhere, it’s not. And so to get this place back on its feet, man, play winning football, something that hadn’t been done here in whatever that is – 20 something years or over. And it is, but we’re not there yet. We’re not there. We’re playing pretty good football and we just won another one. And now, man, yeah, it feels good. Let’s go get the next one. That’s all we can worry about.”
We’re going to streak…
The Lions have won five of their last six games, a “hot streak” that we haven’t seen around here but only three times this millennium. Do you see a recurring theme?
2016: Won eight of nine in the middle of the season under Jim Caldwell. But dropped their last three, including the season-ender against Green Bay. Qualified for a wild card spot, lost at Seattle in the playoffs.
2014: Won six of seven from late September to early November, also under Caldwell. Also won four of their last five games, but the loss was to Green Bay was for the division title. Lost at Dallas in the playoffs.
2011: Won the first five games of the season under Jim Schwartz. Ended the season with a loss to Green Bay, then dropped the wild-card game to the Saints.