"He's unreal. ... I'm just proud to be associated with him."
- Matthew Stafford, after Calvin Johnson's record-breaking performance -
The evening began as Lions vs. Falcons. But as the minutes passed, it became clear: a different game was being played Saturday night.
It was Calvin Johnson vs. History.
And unlike the Lions' season, this one had a chance to end gloriously.
Big Time to All Time. Johnson, already arguably the best receiver in the NFL, came into the night needing 182 yards to pass Jerry Rice for the single-season receiving yardage mark. That's a huge chunk to get in one night, and most folks figured it would come next week against the Bears.
But on the Lions' second drive, Johnson took a crossing route and sprinted full out, those long legs gulping up turf. He covered 49 yards, nearly half a football field.
And quickly you could hear the calculators humming at Ford Field.
"I can't even lie," Johnson would later say, laughing, "I thought, 'That's a big chunk of it right there.'"
Another chuck came on Johnson's next catch, good for 18 yards. And his next, a deep-left pattern for 20. He had a short gain (and a fumble) worth five yards, but added a 22-yard gain on the next drive that helped the Lions go into halftime only trailing by two scores (hey, in Lions Land, that's a major success).
"What's he got now?" fans asked. The answer was 117 yards. In one half? He only needed 65 more.
Suddenly, the night grew different. The night grew possible.
And the night grew loud.
Could they blow it?
Come the second half, fans were jumping and screaming with each ball headed Johnson's direction. People get that way when they sense history is unfolding in front of them. Johnson caught a third-down pass worth 14 yards on a series that led to a touchdown, and a beautiful inside slant from the slot for 26 yards, a drive that drew the Lions within five points.
Coming into the fourth quarter all Johnson needed was four yards to own the record. Four yards? Fans were on their feet. He had 178 yards - already an amazing performance for any NFL receiver. ESPN prepared its graphics. The press box reporters scrambled for statistics. But the Falcons ate up much of the quarter with a steady drive that led to a touchdown. With 7:12 left, tight end Michael Palmer rumbled into the end zone and seemingly iced the game, 28-16.
But as we said, there were two games being played. And only one seemed lost.
Or was it two? On the Lions' next play, every fan in the building was only looking at Johnson. So, unfortunately, was Stafford, the Lions' quarterback. He forced a pass Johnson's way, only to see it picked off by Asante Samuel. Johnson and the offense trotted off empty, and the Falcons chewed another four minutes before their inevitable score.
Was it possible? Could the Lions actually blow history as clumsily as they had blown the season?
The answer, thankfully, was no. On the next play, Stafford looked for Johnson again - and this time found him wide open and crossing left. The ball came in, perfectly in stride, and Johnson galloped across the field and up the sideline, past the Falcons, past Rice and into history.
"I was just like, 'See the ball, see the ball,''' Johnson said afterward of that record-breaking reception.
Did you know it was the one?
"Yeah, because the guys were telling me on the sideline, I'm like four or five yards away.... So I'm like, 'Shoot, let's knock this thing out.'"
He knocked it out in unquestionable fashion - a 26-yard reception. To a thunderous roar, Johnson raced across the field, pointed to the crowd, slapped hands with his teammates and came to the Lions' sideline, where he handed the ball to his father, Calvin Johnson Sr., who was waiting, a huge smile on his face.
"Is that the proudest you've ever been of your son?" the father was later asked.
"It's a continuation," he said.
And his giant son continued on a moment later, trotting back to the huddle and a career that is already brilliant and is now historic.
Big Time to All Time.
The night was his. So was the record book.
The final countdown
"The guy's the best in my mind," Stafford said after the game, standing next to his friend and battery mate. "The height, weight, speed all goes out the window. The way he prepares, the way he works. Nobody goes about his job as professionally as he does.... He sets the standard in the league. It's a high bar."
Remember, the Lions took Johnson in 2007 with the No. 2 pick in the draft, and it's amazing to recall they actually considered trading him because they already had ball-catchers. But from his earliest days in a Lions uniform, it was clear that there were all the other receivers to wear the Honolulu blue - and then there was him.
How good is the man they call Megatron? He's a mold breaker. Even Rice, on the phone with ESPN during Saturday's game, spoke about how Johnson had all the tools, the speed (4.35 in the 40), the leaping ability, the route-running. Rice kept referring to Johnson as "this guy," which may have been a subtle way of delaying the name "Johnson" from the record book. Or it may have been Rice's way of saying Johnson is almost inhuman. As Jim Schwartz would later say, the fact that Johnson has pretty much been Detroit's only bona fide receiver for half the season, and that he faces defenses stacked against him every week, getting 200-yard games "is like a running back gaining 300 yards every week against nothing but eight-man boxes."
It's that impressive. You can't hold him back. He is the Lions' present. He is football's future. In a Detroit season that is draped in disappointment, Johnson's moment, just a few days before Christmas, is a remarkable gift to Motown sports lore.
He finished Saturday with 225 yards on 11 receptions and 1,892 yards for the season. Next week he'll try for the once-unimaginable 2,000-yard season.
Big Time. All Time.
How amazing was it?
You almost forgot that the Lions lost their seventh game in a row, 31-18, and are now an awful 4-11.
Sorry. Had to mention that.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.