DETROIT -- It’s simple to choose one play that made the difference for the Lions on Sunday.
Midway through the third quarter Vikings’ defensive end Jared Allen picked off a Shaun Hill pass and ran it 36 yards for a touchdown to bring the Vikings within six.
Here’s the difference between now and early in the season: The Lions did not collapse under the pressure.
Instead they answered back with a 77-yard fourth-quarter drive ending in a Maurice Morris 5-yard touchdown scamper.
In Sunday’s season-ending game, the Lions beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-13 to stretch their win streak to four games. They had not won four in a row since 1999 and they hadn’t ended the season on such a streak since 1995 when they won their final seven games to finish at 10-6 and still miss the playoffs.
“It’s been a process for us getting this thing turned around, the main thing is we did get it turned around,’’ quarterback Shaun Hill said. “We’ve catapulted ourselves into the 2011 season with the way we finished which is nice. I know everybody in that locker room can’t wait to get back at it this spring.
“It took some growing pains early to prepare us for this and make us a better team going forward,’’ said Hill who finished 28 of 39 for 258 yards, one touchdown and that ugly Jared Allen interception which he never saw.
“I still don’t know, did he catch it? Tip it to himself? Clean catch? Step right in there?’’ Hill asked the media.
When he learned it was a clean catch, he said, “I did throw a catchable ball though,’’ and then he laughed.
The laugh and the relief was a long time coming after this team started with a 2-10 record. They finished 6-10.
Wide receiver Nate Burleson, who had his best game of the season with six catches for 83 yards, a touchdown and one 20-yard run on a reverse, said there had not been a change in the locker room.
“We lost all those games in the beginning of the year, we came to work (ticked) off because we were handing games away, I felt like we gave some games away,’’ Burleson said. “We still approach that same way. Regardless of if we won the last four games when we come to work on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we’re still mad because we’re not where we want to be , so the attitude hasn’t changed.’’
But here’s the key.
“I think on game day it’s starting to click now. We’re not surprised when we’re winning we’re a good team. I don’t want to stand up here and sound overconfident or cocky. I think we’re realizing how good we are now, in the beginning of the year I don’t think we understood it,’’ he added.
Playing without Calvin Johnson, who was dressed and active but never stepped on the field due to an ankle injury, the offense was able to move the ball.
Coach Jim Schwartz said they knew he couldn’t run well, but they thought he possibly could act as a decoy. But they didn’t need him because everyone else stepped up including Burleson and Bryant Johnson (three catches for 49 yards).
Bryant Johnson had the biggest catch of the day on a third-and-8 at Minnesota’s 28 with the Lions clinging to a 13-10 lead, Hill found Johnson along the sidelines for a 23-yard gain. It was ruled a completion and withstood a challenge.
Schwartz said he thought there should have been defensive pass interference called which would have made the challenge a moot point. “That was a great catch and we needed it but I was disappointed because it looked like there was a lot of contact on that play,’’ Schwartz said.
On the next snap Morris ran in for the touchdown to give the Lions a 20-10 lead.
In the second quarter Burleson caught a 7-yard touchdown pass which followed a 55-yard field goal by Dave Rayner who also kicked a 37-yarder in the third quarter.
The Lions held a 10-0 lead at the half.
It’s the second time the Lions’ defense held a division opponent without an offensive touchdown. Detroit beat Green Bay 7-3.
“It’s a credit to this locker room because after they got the pick-six you could feel the momentum shifting, I think the first half of the season the old Lions would have given that up,’’ center Dominic Raiola said. “We’ve been up 14-3 on teams and given the lead up. We came up with a big drive in the fourth quarter and scored a touchdown there, some receivers made big plays down the sideline and punched it in. This is a mature locker room.’’
It’s new territory for the Lions. Raiola and Jeff Backus have been around since they were drafted in 2001. They hadn’t won four straight since college.
The change in the last four weeks has been a maturation of this group as a team. The growing pains were ugly, but perhaps necessary to get to this point.
“It’s just what we’ve been through. You look at what we’ve been through the first half of the season -- the first nine years of my career --- the people who were inserted in this locker room. ... I think we’re learning how to win, there was so much losing going on around here I think we forgot that feeling,’’ Raiola said.
Now it’s back.
To a man, they expect the momentum to carry over into the offseason and next season.
“I see a lot of this team coming back and I think the people upstairs are going to equip us even more to make a playoff run,’’ Raiola said. “That’s the expectation next year, we have the personnel here to do that.’’
The four-game win streak cemented what the team has known since August -- they are headed in the right direction and they are not the same old Lions.
(Paula Pasche covers the Lions. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaPasche. Read her Lions Lowdown blog at TheOaklandPress.com.)
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