For the first 50 minutes of Sunday's 27-23 win over the St. Louis Rams, Lions QB Matthew Stafford looked like a shadow of the player who passed for more than 5,000 yards last season.

In the final 10 minutes of the game at Ford Field, however, he reminded Lions fans -- and the entire NFL -- why Detroit has the potential to be a major player in the 2012 playoff picture.

Kevin Smith's game-winning 5-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter completed a comeback befitting Detroit's Jekyll-and-Hyde effort.

C Dominic Raiola, who has seen just about every possible end-of-game scenario during his 12-year career, summed up the Lions' performance perfectly:

“We might be the only team that makes [football] look so easy and so hard at the same time,” he said.

Detroit dominated possession in the first half, but three Stafford interceptions -- one of which was returned for a touchdown by Cortland Finnegan -- helped the Rams take a 13-10 lead into the break.

In the second half, Rams QB Sam Bradford did all he could to lead his team to victory. He marshaled the St. Louis offense on a pair of drives that gave them the lead in the fourth quarter, finishing the day a respectable 17 for 25 passing for 198 yards and a touchdown.

He got little help from RB Steven Jackson, who was held to a sub-par 53 rushing yards by a smothering Lions' front seven and could only watch as Stafford completed 10 of 12 passes for 142 yards on Detroit's final two scoring drives. That cemented an ugly -- but important -- Lions win.

When the game turned: St. Louis frustrated Stafford for the better part of the game by playing aggressive defense and challenging receivers. When the Rams took a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter, however, they inexplicably dropped into a prevent defense, allowing Stafford all kinds of time to find receivers for large chunks of yards. “[The Rams] were just dropping so deep in coverage,” Stafford said. “Their first line of defense was 12, 15 yards deep sometimes. I just had to take what was there.”

Highlight moments

  • Rams CB Janoris Jenkins was rumored to be a possible target of the Lions in the 2012 draft, but questions surrounding his past saw him fall to the Rams in the second round. Jenkins made his presence felt early Sunday when he intercepted a Stafford pass on his own goal line. After the play, Jenkins flipped the ball toward the Lions' bench and appeared to say something to Detroit's coaches.

  • WR Calvin Johnson's pair of catches on Detroit's final drive showed why he's regarded as one of the best receivers in the league. Johnson was able to shake his defenders on both plays and find a pocket for Stafford to deliver the ball. He made plays at every available opportunity, finishing with six catches for 111 yards. 

  • Lions' DTs sacked Bradford three times on the afternoon, but the credit must be shared with the secondary on all three plays. The defensive backfield was a major question mark heading into the season, but its coverage was strong enough to give the D-line time to bring Bradford down.

Top-shelf performances

  • Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew was instrumental in Detroit's offensive attack Sunday. He was targeted 10 times and made five catches for 77 yards. His involvement in the passing game forced Rams' linebackers to respect him as a viable threat, limiting their ability to pressure Stafford.

  • The Lions' O-line proved that, like fine wines, pass-protection units can get better with age. The Lions' most experienced position group (average age 30.4) limited St. Louis to just one sack and gave Stafford plenty of time to find receivers when it counted.

        What they said about Detroit's game-winning touchdown:

  • Coach Jim Schwartz: "Truth be told, when the play went off I saw that where we intended to go was covered. [Smith] was the last option on that play, probably behind throwing it away. He was really in for the play action and protection. The offensive line did a great job of buying [Stafford] some time, and he found Kevin wide open. It shows you what a great quarterback I'd be."

  • RB Kevin Smith: “It feels good [to score]. I’m glad Matt [Stafford] stuck with me. I kind of got lost in the shuffle, but he told me before that the ball’s coming to me, so it felt good.”

    What they said about Stafford's fourth-quarter performance after throwing three first-half interceptions:

  • Stafford: "I trust my teammates and my teammates trust me no matter what happens in the first half, however bad I look. That’s what being a team is all about."

  • Calvin Johnson: "[Stafford's] a veteran out here. This is his fourth year. He treats it like he's an old vet. Things like [interceptions], they don't phase him. And at the same time, we have his back. You know if he's not putting the ball out there to us, we're not going to be able to move the ball in the outfield. We know how good he is."   

  • Schwartz: "We knew there were going to be ups and downs over the course of the game. There’s going to be ups and downs over the course of the season, but you’ve got to have a demeanor that can allow you to bounce back from that and [Stafford] does.”

Numbers you should know: Sunday's game was the first win of Stafford's career in a game where he threw three or more interceptions.

Detroit's special teams' were an Achilles heel last season, but they helped the Lions' dominate the field-position battle Sunday. The Lions had an average starting field position of their own 30-yard line. The Rams, meanwhile, started eight of their 11 drives at or inside their own 20-yard line, giving the Lions' D-line plenty of time to disrupt Bradford's rhythm.

Injury update: Lions CB Bill Bentley left the game with concussion-like symptoms. Schwartz confirmed that Bentley was tested for a concussion but did not confirm an official diagnosis. Rams LT Rodger Saffold was carted off the field in the fourth quarter after sustaining a neck injury. He was given a CAT scan as a precaution, and Rams officials say he has strength and movement in his arms and legs. Starting C Scott Wells has a foot injury. His status for Week 2 is unknown. 

Going forward: Lions -- The win was a crucial one for the Lions, who face one of their most difficult games of the season next Sunday in San Francisco. Tennessee's performance against the Patriots on Sunday makes Detroit's Week 3 game in Nashville look more winnable, and Detroit should be favored against Minnesota in Week 4. If the Lions don't beat themselves, they could be 3-1 or better heading into their Week 5 bye. Rams -- Their road doesn't get any easier when they host the 1-0 Redskins next week. Their difficulty covering the middle of the field plays to Washington QB Robert Griffin III's strengths. That game is followed by a tough trip to Soldier Field to face a Bears offense that's just as potent as the one they faced in Detroit. It's possible Jeff Fisher may have to wait for a Week 4 date with the Cardinals to get his first win as Rams coach.

Follow Lions reporter John Kreger on Twitter at @CBSLions and @JohnKreger.