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'Fast, physical and violent' Lions buoyed by four fourth-down conversions in win over Chargers

INGLEWOOD, Calif -- You didn't need to know ahead of time the attitude Detroit Lions Coach Dan Campbell wanted his team to have against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

The Lions showed you, early and often, on one fourth down after another, on runs short and long, on passes and pitches, on the goal line and, finally, with the game on the line.

"I wanted us to play fast, physical and violent," Campbell said.

The Chargers were on the receiving end of all those roundhouse punches. They threw a few, too, in a wild shootout that was a monument to aggressive coaching and spectacular offense, ending with the Lions winning, 41-38, to go to 7-2.

The victory, the sixth in the Lions' last seven games, keeps them ahead of the surging Minnesota Vikings (6-4) in the NFC North and keeps alive the hope that the Lions could win their division for the first time since 1993.

At the root of those hopes is what was on display Sunday -- a finally healthy offense that has the full faith of its coaches. That was never more obvious than on the final drive, with the game tied and the ball in the Lions' hands. They were playing to line up a makeable field goal as the seconds ticked away, but nearly as important was keeping the Chargers' Justin Herbert on the bench. All game, the fourth-down calls had worked, on a David Montgomery fourth-and-5 run in the first quarter, on a fourth-and goal Jahmyr Gibbs run in the second. On and on it went, the foot-on-the-gas approach of both coaches -- the Chargers were 3 of 3 on fourth down, the Lions 4 of 5 -- driven by analytics, sure, but also by an acknowledgement that nobody was stopping anybody so points had to be squeezed from every possession.

And so, on fourth-and-2 from the Chargers' 26-yard line with 1:47 left on the clock, the Lions had a choice to make. A field goal to take the lead was available, but Jared Goff suspected Campbell would go for it. He assumes that until told otherwise, Goff said after the game. He was right, and the pass went to rookie tight end Sam LaPorta for 6 yards. Amon-Ra St. Brown high-fived Campbell after the play. The clock kept ticking and the winning field goal came as time expired. Herbert, who threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns, did not get a final shot.

"I wanted to finish with the ball," Campbell said. "I trusted our guys, I trust Goff. I liked where we were offensively. I felt like that was the right thing to do.

"To each his own. Some say it's a boneheaded move. Some say it's not. I made the decision. I stick by that decision."

Or, as Goff more bluntly put it: "He's got big -----. He showed it there."

At the root of Campbell's confidence in his offense is that the group has been together for a while and that even new pieces like Montgomery, LaPorta and Gibbs have proven to be reliable. But Campbell said he knows from experience how the offensive line, and Goff and St. Brown will function, how offensive coordinator Ben Johnson will call the game. That has produced a comfort level that has only been enhanced by the improved health of the group.

One of the questions for the Lions entering the game was how Montgomery would be reincorporated with Gibbs. But that, too, is part of the vision: The Lions have of a two-headed monster. The running game was so effective -- 200 yards on the day -- that a touchdown pass to Brock Wright was the result of a perfect play fake by Goff that caused the Lions defense to hesitate, waiting for the run, only to have the ball sail over their heads to Wright in the end zone. And the running game even produced the game's most dynamic play out of what was a screwup.

After the Chargers had scored their first touchdown in the second quarter, the Lions took the field with the wrong personnel group for the play that was supposed to be run. St. Brown was on the field instead of a tight end, and he had no idea what he should do on the play. So Goff checked to a base run, and Montgomery took it for a 75-yard touchdown.

Goff said the Lions check a lot to try to get into what they call "premier plays."

But very good teams get premier plays out of mistakes and the Lions were in that kind of zone Sunday. More worrisome for the rest of the NFC, they have a string of five very winnable games before they conclude the season with games against the Vikings, Cowboys and Vikings again. And Campbell feels they are at full force now, with an offensive line that did not allow Goff to be touched and a bevy of weapons.

"You win a close game, to win a shootout, this is one of those things, we haven't done a lot of, is win a close shootout," Campbell said. "Every time you win, no matter how you've got to get it done, you gain from it."

What the Lions are gaining now is a growing belief in each other, that they have the people to make something special, something rare, happen in Detroit. It is displayed in those fourth-down decisions. And in the Lions' season.

"We want to make him right," Goff said of what Campbell's confidence does for the Lions. "It gives us a little more motivation to make things work. He trusts us. Maybe the odds are stacked against us, and he's saying 'No, they're not.' "

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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