Matt Stafford looked shaky in the first half but poised when the Detroit Lions needed him most.
Stafford's 5-yard touchdown to running back Kevin Smith with 10 seconds remaining gave the Lions a 27-23 opening-day victory over the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field Sunday. Stafford overcame three first-half interceptions and passed for 355 yards to spoil Jeff Fisher's debut as the Rams' head coach.
Greg Zuerlein's 46-yard field goal put the Rams ahead 23-20 with 1:55 left before Stafford passed for all the yardage on the decisive nine-play, 80-yard drive.
"That two-minute drive is as fun as it gets in the NFL," said Stafford, who completed 32 of 48 passes. "Guys are just making plays, taking what they've learned in the first three quarters and 11 minutes and using it in that last one."
Smith, who also scored on a 5-yard run earlier in the quarter, wasn't even supposed to run a route on the game-winning play. But with Calvin Johnson and the other Lions receivers getting blanketed, Stafford had to improvise.
"Kevin is probably the last option on that play, probably behind 'Throw it away,'" Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He's really part of the play-action and the protection and he's leaking out really late. The head coach is on the headphones saying 'Throw it away, Matt, throw it away. We have two more plays here.' But the offensive line did a very good job and bought Matt some time. He could go through his whole progression and found Kevin wide open."
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford completed 17 of 25 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown. He didn't make a turnover but gave the Lions' explosive offense a little too much time to unleash its power.
"Obviously, it took us until late in the game to get in a rhythm," Bradford said. "It seemed like, especially in the second and third quarters, we struggled to do that. But we had some positive runs and completions to get us on track. We definitely found a little bit of a rhythm and hopefully we can find it a little earlier next week."
The Lions held Rams running back Steven Jackson to 53 yards on 21 carries but he was encouraged how his team, which finished 2-14 last season, nearly collected a road upset.
"It showed that guys are gutting it out and winning some individual battles," he said. "We were able to move the ball downfield. Of course, we would have loved to put it in the end zone. We definitely have a lot of film that we can go over and build off of the rest of the season."
Jason Hanson's 45-yard field goal completed the Lions' first drive of the second half and tied the game 13-13. The Rams regained the lead with 9:45 remaining on Bradford's 23-yard completion to Brandon Gibson, who beat the one-on-one coverage of rookie cornerback Jonte Green down the left sideline.
St. Louis' celebration was short-lived. Left tackle Rodger Saffold was carted off after the play with a neck injury. Saffold's upper body was twisted awkwardly as he attempted to block safety John Wendling and contacted guard Rokevious Watkins.
Smith's 5-yard run with 7:19 left allowed the Lions to tie it again at 20-20. Stafford completed three passes to tight end Brandon Pettigrew for 62 of the 80 yards on the drive.
Stafford's turnovers allowed the Rams to grab a 13-10 halftime lead. St. Louis took the lead with 1:28 remaining in the half when Cortland Finnegan stepped in front of Calvin Johnson and returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown.
Earlier, Stafford was picked off by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins at the goal line to halt a long opening drive. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar made the Rams' second interception when he cut in front of Pettigrew after the Lions had reached the St. Louis 16-yard line.
"You don't want to have three in the first five games and you sure don't want to have three in the first half of the first one," Stafford said of the interceptions. "But the guys believe in each other and I believe in all the guys in the locker room that we can get it done, no matter what happens to start the game."
Detroit reserve running back Joique Bell scored the game's initial touchdown and the first of his career when he plunged in from the 1-yard line with 9:26 left in the half. That sandwiched field goals of 48 and 29 yards by Zuerlein.
Following Finnegan's score to make it 13-7, the Lions cut the deficit in half on Hanson's 41-yard field goal. That was set up by a 51-yard pass from Stafford to Johnson.
NOTES: Johnson led all receivers with six receptions for 111 yards and Smith added 62 rushing yards. ... Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola, coming back from an elbow injury that kept him out last season, had five receptions for 70 yards. ... Hanson became the first player in NFL history to play in a 21st season with one franchise. The previous record was 20, which he shared last season with Jackie Slater (Los Angeles Rams) and Darrell Green (Washington). ... Stafford became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to reach 8,000 passing yards in 30 career starts, joining Kurt Warner, Dan Marino, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers. Stafford has 8,195 career passing yards.