Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) runs out of the pocket during the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Ford Field. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)
DETROIT (DETROIT FREE PRESS) Matthew Stafford was yelling, screaming like his house was on fire, and figuratively it was.
Riley Reiff was 30 yards downfield celebrating what he thought was a game-winning touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson as the precious final seconds ticked off the clock in a game the Detroit Lions couldn't afford to lose.
Twenty-two, 21, 20 ...
Stafford waved his arms maniacally for his starting left tackle, the one playing through a hamstring injury, to get to the line of scrimmage. He motioned with his right arm to spike the ball and told his offensive linemen - everyone within earshot, really - that he was about to do just that.
As Reiff raced into his three-point stance - "I think he probably ran a 4.3," Reggie Bush said - Stafford surveyed a Dallas Cowboys defense trying to catch its breath, called for the snap from Dominic Raiola, climbed over his center's back and extended his arms across the goal line as a few stunned linebackers made a last-ditch effort to swat the ball away.
The clock froze at 12 seconds and Stafford booked around left end into the middle of the end zone where he celebrated a touchdown so unexpected he had to explain what happened to several linemen in the locker room after the game with the most ferocious spike you've ever seen.
Ballgame. Lions win 31-30. Another amazing comeback complete.
"I told everybody I was spiking it," Stafford said. "I was screaming clock, I was going to spike it. It was a feel thing. I was yelling, 'Spike.' They knew I was yelling spike. I saw linebackers kind of standing like this (back off the line of scrimmage). Our guys didn't fire off, they just stood up but I looked down and we were that far, shoot I'm going to figure I'll get that. So I just need to go - shoot, I don't know, I was making a play, man. I was trying to help my team win and sure am glad I got across."
Stafford, who now has nine fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, completed 33 of 48 passes for a season-high 488 yards and got plenty of help from Johnson and a costly Cowboys holding penalty that left the Lions enough time for the game-winning drive.
Johnson caught 14 passes for a Lions record 329 yards, the second-highest single-game total in NFL history, and had his way with Dallas' $10-million-a-year cornerback, Brandon Carr.
He opened the scoring with a 2-yard touchdown catch and made another of his signature jump-ball grabs amid two defenders, but until the final minute it looked like his heroics might be lost in a crush of Lions turnovers.
Dallas led, 27-24, with 1:24 to play and had a chance to run out the clock after stopping the Lions (5-3) on fourth-and-12 at their own 31.
But DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch stuffed Joseph Randle for a 3-yard loss on first down, Travis Lewis dropped Phillip Tanner for a 1-yard loss on second down, and after the Lions used their final timeout, Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith grabbed Devin Taylor for a holding penalty on third down that stopped the clock with 1:14 to play.
The Lions, who would have got the ball back with about 25 seconds left if not for the penalty, gave up a field goal and started their final drive at their own 20 with 1:02 on the clock.
"Our emotions, we were a little down, we were a little up. I think I experienced just about every emotion possible today," Bush said. "Guys just keep fighting and then defense gave us a chance. When they got that holding penalty it stopped the clock and that gave us a chance. ... Sometimes it just works out that way."
Stafford completed 4 of 5 passes for 79 yards on the game-winning drive with one spike, and took advantage of a Dallas defense that lost starting safety Barry Church to a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter and played the entire day without its other starter at safety, J.J. Wilcox.
Kris Durham caught a 40-yard pass down the Lions sideline when backup safety Jakar Hamilton, who signed off the practice squad earlier in the week, was late helping Orlando Scandrick, and one play later Johnson split Hamilton and Carr down the right seam for a 22-yard gain to the Dallas 1.
Church said he felt "helpless" watching the final drive, and Lions coach Jim Schwartz said few quarterbacks other than Stafford could have engineered the series.
"We know what we got in him," center Dominic Raiola said. "I just said earlier, Calvin had a huge day, player of the game and everything, but for Matt to come back and do what he did after what he went through early in the game it's crazy. ... I mean, what can you say about the guy? Love his toughness, love his moxie."
Stafford threw two interceptions, both to Sean Lee, and all four of the Lions' turnovers came in Cowboys territory.
Tony Romo completed just 14 of 30 passes for 206 yards for the Cowboys and threw second-half touchdowns of 50 yards to Dez Bryant and 60 yards to Terrance Williams.
Johnson's 329 yards were the most ever by a receiver in regulation in NFL history. Flipper Anderson had 336 yards receiving in 1989, but 40 of those yards came in overtime.
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.