The last time the Lions were 8-2, a gallon of gas cost 32 cents. The year was 1962.
"What year??" asked Aidan Hutchinson, dumbfounded, after a dumbfounding turn of events at Ford Field. "That's unbelievable. It's a testament to the guys we got in here. I'm really happy for how hard we've worked to get here. We're a good team on that path."
The Lions were a bad team for most of Sunday afternoon. They were on a path to nowhere, trailing the Bears 26-14 with about four minutes to play. They were wandering toward their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their division, and they were hearing boos from the home crowd for the first time this year. Expectations breed scrutiny. Hope sometimes yields angst.
On Detroit's sideline, emotions were level. The mood was optimistic. Despite having turned the ball over four times, including three interceptions by Jared Goff for the first time in his Lions tenure, "we knew we were still in the game," said Jameson Williams. "We knew it wasn’t over. Everybody dapping each other up and keeping each other up because we know we gonna get this ball back and go score." Goff started plotting a new path in his head.
"You’re thinking, 'What is the scenario that we win?'" he said. "As you grow older as a quarterback, you understand in those scenarios that there is an avenue to win. You may not feel it, you may not know it, but you can find it and you can get there."
While extending their lead in the fourth quarter, the Bears had kept the Lions alive by kicking field goals. Goff said that when they played conservatively for the 12-point lead, his first thought was, "OK, they're letting us have a chance to win this with two touchdowns. Sounds good." It was on the Lions to take advantage.
True to his word, Williams gave Detroit life with a 32-yard touchdown with just over three minutes to go. He ran himself open and the Bears couldn't catch up. This is why you invest in speed, because it can change a game in the blink of an eye. Linebacker Alex Anzalone said that "once (the defense) saw that and saw the offense get going, we knew we just had to get one more stop."
"Because when they’re clicking, there’s no better offense in the league," he said. "Especially with the time left and the amount of timeouts, yeah, we’ve been in these situations before."
In situations like these, Dan Campbell has a saying: "As long as we have the ability to get a stop and we got three timeouts, we can do anything." When Detroit's defense took the field needing to force its first three-and-out of the day, corner Cam Sutton said there was "never a doubt in our game. No doubt at all." The defense, as a unit, "wanted to take ownership" of the moment. They did by stuffing Khalil Herbert on two runs and then forcing Justin Fields into an incompletion on a deep shot.
The Bears had held a win probability of 98.8 percent, per ESPN Analytics, with 3:59 to play. Some 90 seconds later, it felt like the Lions' game to lose. Good teams have the ability to win at their worst, by playing their best when it matters most. On arguably his ugliest day in Detroit, Goff led the offense back onto the field with the game in his hands and started the drive with a 13-yard completion to David Montgomery. Montgomery would finish it with a one-yard plunge to stick the dagger in his former team. Goff was 10-of-12 for 116 yards and a touchdown on Detroit's final two drives, permeating calm in moments of panic.
"In a game that he’s not playing his best game, I think that speaks volumes," said Campbell. "Here’s what we know about Goff. At the very least he’s going to be mentally and physically tough, and you can always count on that. You can bank on that, and today he showed his resiliency. When we needed those plays when he showed up in no-huddle mode, he was awesome.”
This is not meant to gloss Goff's performance, which was otherwise poor. He was lucky not to have thrown a pick-six near the Bears' goal-line on another ill-advised throw in the first half. He was out of rhythm for most of the game, but as Campbell said, "he never got frazzled." It would have frayed the wires of the offense before the Lions had a chance to rally. In the rare moments that Goff does show frustration, "more than anything I think he just wants to punch himself in the face," said Campbell. He wound up and socked the Bears instead.
"It means that the guys that you have around you are willing to go to their wits ends to make sure they know we got each other's backs," Montgomery said.
Montgomery, once again, was stellar. The turnovers limited his carries in the second half, but he made a huge impact on the last two drives. The Lions know they can give him the ball and gain yards, which can't be said for every running back. They also know he can pop a big one at a moment's notice. He plays with authority, which seems to fill his teammates with self-assurance.
You can bet his former teammates miss him. The Bears were 7-1 against the Lions over a three-year stretch that included the first season of the Campbell era. The Lions have taken the last three, and seized control of the NFC North. They're 7-0 in the division, and 12-2 in the conference, since last November.
"We got a bunch of guys in this locker room and coaches who are high-character guys, gritty guys," Montgomery said. "You see what it’s like for a long time when you done got beat down, the tide begins to change. And that’s what it’s doing right now."
After Montgomery gave the Lions the lead with 29 seconds to play, Campbell gathered his defense on the sideline and told them, "It doesn’t get any better than this. This is the moment you want to be in right now. Game on the line, you got a chance to make the big stop to win this game."
It had been another quiet day for Aidan Hutchinson, amid a quiet stretch in his season. He was going on five games without a sack. On the first play of the decisive drive, Hutchinson powered past 10th overall pick Darnell Wright on the right edge and strip-sacked Justin Fields for a safety to seal the game. Frustrated a few minutes prior, Ford Field was maybe the loudest it's been all season. The building shook as Hutchinson picked up the ball and punted it into the crowd: "That's going to be a nice little find," he said with a grin.
A lesson learned for the Lions?
"We got to bring our s-h-*-t every divisional game," Hutchinson said.
"Finding a way to win games like that, that’s just testing the strength of the team," said Sutton. "The sky’s the limit, man. We don’t have no ceiling to what we can do. We’re hungry to play together, to excel, just to be able to change each other’s lives. When you got a capacity and group like that, all kinds of special things can happen."
It started happening at this time last season. The Lions began winning games they would normally lose, with defensive stands and fourth quarter rallies and clutch drives led by their cool-handed quarterback. It has continued into this season, and Sunday was the surest sign yet that times are changing. There was more bad than good for the Lions, but their best outweighed their worst.
"This is just the beginning for us," said Williams. "We 8-2. We trying to keep it going and get in the playoffs and do big things in the playoffs. It’s just another step on the ladder we gotta complete so we can get to the top."
As Thanksgiving beckons in the Motor City, the Lions and their fans are all gassed up.