DETROIT — Matthew Stafford scrambled to his left and threw on the run toward the back of the end zone — hardly an ideal scenario on third down in the final minute.
Then again, nothing has come easy for the Detroit Lions lately. Yet they keep on winning.
Stafford’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 29 seconds remaining lifted the Lions to a 20-16 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. It was Detroit’s fourth straight victory, and the past three have been by a combined six points, all with fourth-quarter comebacks.
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"I just love that feeling. It’s a good feeling for a quarterback to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game," Stafford said. "By no means are we playing perfect, but we’re finding ways to win games."
Calvin Johnson had seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in his first game back from an ankle injury, and the Lions (7-2) remained atop the NFC North. Detroit equaled its best record since 1954, when the Lions won eight of their first nine games. They have started 7-2 only four times since, according to STATS, most recently in 1993 when they finished 10-6.
The Dolphins (5-4) scored a touchdown in the third quarter after they blocked a Detroit field goal attempt and returned it deep into Lions territory. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill threw for 215 yards, but it was Stafford who made the final big play, snapping a pass to a sliding Riddick in the back left corner of the end zone.
The Dolphins lost in the final minute for the second time in a month. Green Bay scored a touchdown with 3 seconds left to beat them.
"We weren’t thinking about the Packers game. We were thinking about this game. We didn’t win, so it didn’t go the way we wanted it to," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "Matt Stafford, their receivers made plays. I take my hat off to them."
Miami cornerback Cortland Finnegan went down with an ankle injury, and the Dolphins also lost offensive lineman Branden Albert to a right knee injury.
Miami took a 16-13 lead with 4:19 remaining on a 20-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis. It was the second time the Dolphins settled for three points near the Detroit goal line. The Lions had to punt, but they forced Miami to do the same, and Stafford still had 3:13 left when Detroit took over on its 26.
Stafford completed his first five passes of the drive. On third down from the Miami 27. Stafford found Golden Tate for a completion ruled a first down and upheld on video review, bringing the Lions even closer to the end zone.
Finally, on third down from the 11, Stafford threw to Riddick, the 5-foot-9 running back who slipped behind Reshad Jones in the end zone.
"We’ve been in that situation so many times," said Johnson, who played for the first time since Oct. 5. "We have a core group of guys that have been on the team over the last four years. We’ve been in those situations time in, time out where we come back and win."
Detroit squandered an early 10-0 lead and fell behind after yet another kicking mishap. Ahead 10-6 in the third quarter, Matt Prater’s 42-yard attempt was blocked by Earl Mitchell. Dion Jordan’s 58-yard return put the ball at the Detroit 3. Tannehill threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace.
It was the second blocked field goal of the season for Miami, which has also blocked two punts.
Prater made a 50-yard kick early in the fourth quarter, but the Lions are still only 11 of 22 on field goals this season. They won their previous game over Atlanta on Prater’s last-second kick in London — but that came after a miss was negated by a delay of game on Detroit.
The Lions outgained Miami 121-1 in building their early lead. Then the game quickly turned into the type of low-scoring struggle expected between the top-ranked defense in each conference. Detroit’s early touchdown came when Stafford found Johnson deep over the middle in single coverage. With a 7-inch height advantage over Grimes, Johnson hauled in the pass in for a 49-yard score while Grimes tumbled to the ground behind him.
Detroit had a great chance to add to the lead in the second quarter after James Ihedigbo intercepted Tannehill and returned it deep into Miami territory. But a facemask penalty pushed the ball back to the Miami 31, and on the next play, Stafford threw toward Johnson. Grimes made a spectacular interception, reaching up with his right hand and pulling the ball in as he fell backward into the end zone.
NOTES: Detroit ran two fake punts in the first half. Punter Sam Martin completed passes on both, but only one was long enough for a first down. … Detroit OL Larry Warford hurt his left knee early in the game.