DETROIT — It was the type of finish that can make a player, and break a team.
Rookie Andrew Luck continued to spread his magic Sunday, rallying the surprising Indianapolis Colts to an improbable 35-33 victory over the snake-bitten Detroit Lions.
Luck threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:39, including a 14-yarder to receiver Donnie Avery on the final play.
“Some teams find ways to win, others don’t,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “Ours do.”
And the Lions don’t.
It was the fourth straight loss for Detroit, the last three at home by a combined total of nine points.
After winning close games to make the playoffs a year ago, the Lions (4-8) keep finding ways to lose this season. They are the only team in at least 30 years to drop three straight at home after leading each time with two minutes remaining in regulation, according to STATS LLC.
This latest one could have demoralizing effects, especially coming off a four-point loss to Green Bay and a three-point defeat in overtime to Houston.
“This is a tough league for tough people,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “We’ll find out who’s tough and who’s not.”
Stafford added: “You’ve got to be mentally, physically, emotionally . . . strong. The guys that can do that will last. The guys that can’t do that won’t last.”
Luck is going to last.
He didn’t have his best day, from start to finish, throwing three interceptions. But he was there at the end, with a veteran’s savvy, when it mattered most.
“The kid made some plays,” Stafford said.
“He made a big-time play when it counted,” Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch added of Luck. “We didn’t.”
The Lions appeared to be in control with a 33-21 lead and less than three minutes remaining, but Luck threw a 42-yard touchdown pass and then drove the Colts 75 yards in the final 1:07 to win it.
The game came down to fourth down from the Lions’ 14-yard line with four seconds remaining. Detroit flooded the end zone with defenders. Schwartz blamed the pass rush at the end for allowing Luck to move around to buy some time.
The rookie quarterback finally spotted Avery, a last-ditch option on the play, all alone at about the 9-yard line. Avery sprinted for the end zone untouched.
“I had no choice but to score,” Avery said.
Luck, who has already led five game-winning drives, said: “You always hesitate throwing the ball not in the end zone. I took the calculated risk that Donnie could get there and he did.”
Of course, he got there. These Colts are becoming a team of destiny while their coach, Chuck Pagano, tries to battle back from leukemia.
Indianapolis, 2-14 last year, appears to be headed to the playoffs in a turnaround season that no one expected. The Colts are 8-4, including 7-1 in one-possession games (eight points or less).
“That’s coach Pagano from Day 1 . . . telling us to keep fighting, keep fighting, keep playing,” Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. “Tell us to run into a brick wall, we’re going to run into a brick wall.”
The Lions ran into a brick wall Sunday and it’s going to be difficult to get back up by next Sunday night’s nationally televised game at Green Bay. Detroit has lost 21 straight road games to the Packers.
The last-second shocker ruined another brilliant performance by receiver Calvin Johnson, who caught 13 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown.
Johnson now has 1,428 receiving yards in 12 games, and trails Jerry Rice’s all-time NFL single-season record (1,848 in 1995) by 420 yards.
Johnson needs to average at least 105.5 yards in the final four games to break the record.
“Calvin Johnson’s always a bright spot,” Schwartz said. “He makes play after play for us. Maybe should have put him out there on defense the last play.”
Stafford might have come up with the team’s slogan to sum up the 2012 season when he muttered, “One play away.”
The Lions possessed the ball for 15 more minutes than the Colts. They had chances to turn it into a rout, but had to settle for two field goals after getting into the red zone.
And they had chances to put it away at the end with one first down . . . or one defensive stop.
“Got to close out games,” cornerback Chris Houston said. “We’re not closing them out. We’re right there. I think we get too relaxed (with a late lead). Guys think the game is over.
“You’ve got to keep grinding. Once our offense scores, then we give up a touchdown. We can’t win like that.”
They found that out again Sunday, the hard way.
It was two teams headed in totally opposite directions. One has a great Luck, the other nothing but bad luck right now.
Enigmatic Lions receiver Titus Young, in the doghouse for disciplinary reasons, was inactive for the second straight game.
“He was told by me not to come to the stadium,” Schwartz said. “I thought that was best for the team today.”
Asked whether Young has played his final game as a Lion, Schwartz said, “Yet to be seen.”
… Receiver Ryan Broyles injured his right knee in the first quarter and didn’t return. It was not the same knee that required surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament a year ago.
Broyles will undergo more tests Monday.
“There’s concern,” Schwartz said.
… Offensive tackle Jeff Backus, who missed the first game of his 12-year career a week earlier because of a hamstring injury, returned to the starting lineup.