ARLINGTON, Texas — Matthew Stafford took the final snap, dropped to a knee and tucked the ball under his jersey for safekeeping.
He wanted a souvenir to remind him of his first NFL game in his hometown — not that he, or anyone else involved, is likely to forget this one.
A week after turning a 20-point halftime deficit into an overtime win, the Lions provided further proof they’re a legitimate contender by turning a 24-point, third-quarter deficit into a 34-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
Detroit’s defense started the rally with interceptions returned for touchdowns on consecutive drives, then Stafford and Calvin Johnson took over from there, hooking up for a pair of touchdowns in the final period, including a 2-yarder for the winning points with 1:39 left.
“It’s crazy how it happens,” Stafford said. “When it was 27-3, we knew we had to start making plays. Once we did, we started catching fire.”
Detroit is 4-0 and has won an NFL-best eight straight games. This also was its franchise-record fifth straight road win, avenging a loss here last November that had been its NFL-record 26th straight road loss.
Tony Romo and the Cowboys (2-2) continued to show there’s no lead and no deficit too big for them. They blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead for the first time in franchise history in the opener, and this was their largest lead blown in a loss in franchise history. Dallas’ previous biggest blown lead was 21 against Washington on Nov. 28, 1965, when the Cowboys led 21-0 in the second quarter on the way to a 34-31 loss.
Meltdowns against the Jets in Week 1 and this one are bookends around two straight late-game victories pulled out by Romo despite a cracked rib.
The rib wasn’t to blame this time, but Romo certainly will be because of the two interceptions returned for TDs, and another interception with 4:13 left that set up Detroit’s winning score. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was quick to defend his quarterback, saying: “I have a lot of faith in Romo. This doesn’t touch that.”
This was a bizarre way for the Cowboys to end an NFL-record streak of nine straight games decided by a field goal or less. The final play was wacky, too, with Felix Jones catching a short pass with no one around him on fourth-and-20, then running out of bounds after only gaining 8 yards.
So much for a 3-1 start and a bye week to savor it. Instead, Dallas players will suffer through an additional week of questions about Romo’s leadership and their overall inability to put games away. At least they’ll have time to get over all their injuries, not that those were much of a factor in this loss.
“Today and over the next week or two, it’s going to be difficult to look back at it, but at some point here, we’re going to move on,” Romo said. “There’s a lot of guys doing a lot of good things. We’ll evaluate it and get better from it.”
Stafford had dozens of relatives and friends in the crowd, including his high school coach, which may have been part of the reason he struggled early.
His first pass to Johnson was intercepted, leading to Dallas’ first touchdown. The defense was constantly in his face, forcing rushed throws or throwaways. He was only 9 of 23 at the half.
Once the interceptions were returned for touchdowns, Stafford looked like a different man. He stood strong in the pocket, and did a better job of finding Johnson.
They connected on a 23-yarder in the end zone, when Johnson reached over three defenders, to make it 30-24. After a third interception by Romo led to a 51-yard field goal by Jason Hanson, Stafford and Johnson connected for the winner. It came against tight coverage on a play when the Cowboys had 12 defenders on the field.
The Lions especially enjoyed Johnson being the late-game star because earlier this week Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said Johnson would only be Dallas’ third-best receiver.
“He got a lot of respect for him for not being the best receiver on their team,” said Stafford, who finished 21 of 43 for 240 yards. “(Ryan) throws a couple of guys on him here and there.”
Johnson caught eight passes for 96 yards, and tied Cris Carter’s NFL record of catching two TDs in four straight games. He already was the first player in NFL history to do it in the first three games of a season, so he stretched that mark, too.
Romo finished 34 of 47 for 331 yards, with three touchdowns. He wore a protective vest and needed a painkilling injection, but did just fine the first 21/2 quarters.
He was on a roll of completing 13 of 14 passes, the only incompletion a clock-stopping spike, when his good buddy Bobby Carpenter made a leaping interception and a weaving 35-yard return for a touchdown. The Lions were still down 27-10, so it seemed harmless — except that it gave Detroit players hope. Cornerback Chris Houston provided more when he returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown on the next series.
“The key play of the game was Bobby Carpenter,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “We had no juice before that. It wasn’t the game-winner, it didn’t turn the tide completely. But it did give us the spark and got things going a little bit.”
Dez Bryant was among the early stars for Dallas, catching two touchdown passes before Johnson even had a single grab, and Laurent Robinson had seven catches for 116 yards.
Bryant’s only big moment in the second half was a diving catch overturned on a challenge by Schwartz. Schwartz appeared to curse at Bryant after the play.