DETROIT — With 15 seconds remaining and no timeouts, about the only thing Matthew Stafford couldn't afford was a sack.
The Detroit quarterback faked a handoff, dropped back and waited patiently for running back Kevin Smith to drift open in the flat. As time ticked, even coach Jim Schwartz was hoping Stafford would throw the ball away.
"It's very, very difficult to go through a progression that way when you're already sped up," Schwartz said. "Matt did a very good job of understanding a situation, controlling a situation and was able to make the play that won us the game."
Stafford's 5-yard touchdown pass to Smith with 10 seconds left gave the Lions a 27-23 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Stafford threw three interceptions — one of which was run back for a touchdown — but Detroit scored two fourth-quarter TDs to avoid an upset.
The Lions went 80 yards in 1:45 for the win, and they kept moving after reaching field goal range. Contrast that with the previous St. Louis drive, when the Rams had to settle for Greg Zuerlein's 46-yard field goal and a 23-20 lead.
"Really disappointed for our team because they did a great job preparing. I felt like they knew what to do," St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said. "They had a great deal of respect for their opponent and we gave ourselves a chance to stay in the game and win at the end."
Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, threw three interceptions in the first half. But he finished 32 of 48 for 355 yards.
Detroit's All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson caught six passes for 111 yards, including an 18-yard grab just before Smith was left alone for his second TD of the game. On the pivotal play, the Rams double-covered Johnson and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar seemed to lose sight of Smith.
"I knew in that formation Calvin would get all of the attention," Stafford said. "That's exactly what happened."
Schwartz, however, had to sweat it out on the sideline while his quarterback checked down to Smith.
"Kevin was the last option on that play, probably behind 'throw it away' because he was part of the play action and protection," Schwartz said. "The head coach was on the headphones, 'Throw it away Matt, throw it away!' It shows you what a good quarterback I'd be."
There were a few times earlier in the game when Stafford probably should have taken that advice. The first St. Louis interception was by Janoris Jenkins at the goal line, and he returned it 34 yards. Dunbar picked off a pass in the second quarter and took it 42 yards to the Detroit 44.
Then Cortland Finnegan returned his interception 31 yards for a touchdown to give the Rams a 13-7 lead.
It was 13-10 at halftime.
Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick a year after Stafford, threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Gibson with 9:45 remaining in the game. That gave the Rams a 20-13 lead — and they looked like they might be on their way to a surprising win after going 2-14 last season.
But offensive tackle Rodger Saffold was carted off after that touchdown with a scary-looking neck injury. He was taken for a CT scan.
"What I can report to you is that he was conscious, he was alert. He had strength in the arms and legs," Fisher said. "This is more of a precautionary deal."
Although the news later was encouraging, a hush fell over the field while Saffold was being tended to.
"You know it's serious when they bring out the stretcher and bring out the cart," Bradford said. "You just hope and pray that everything is OK and he checks out all right. Especially, I know yesterday there were a couple hits in college football, I think one kid broke his neck. It's scary. You hate seeing things like that happen."
The St. Louis lead was short lived. Detroit needed only five plays to go 80 yards and tie it on a 5-yard scoring run by Smith.
Bradford was hit by defensive end Cliff Avril on the game's last play, leading to some pushing, shoving and shouting that didn't get out of hand in part because the officials separated the players. The replacement officials included line judge Shannon Eastin, who became the first woman to officiate an NFL regular-season game.
Steven Jackson gained just 53 yards on 21 carries for a St. Louis offense that couldn't take enough time off the clock on its next-to-last drive to prevent Stafford from getting the ball back.
Bradford was 17 of 25 for 198 yards, taking advantage of a Detroit defense that was without injured defensive backs Chris Houston and Louis Delmas. Lions rookie cornerback Bill Bentley left the game with a concussion.
NOTES: Replacement official Paul Caldera left the game in the third quarter with an apparent leg injury. ... Detroit WR Titus Young was called for unnecessary roughness after he head-butted Jenkins. "It was right in front of me the whole time," Schwartz said. "It looked like he was going to walk away and do the right thing and then he made a dumb decision." ... Fisher hired Schwartz in 1999 to be on his staff at Tennessee and promoted him two years later to the Titans' defensive coordinator, a job he had until Detroit gave him his first shot to be a head coach three years ago. ... Lions rookie CB Bill Bentley left the game with a concussion. ... St. Louis WR Danny Amendola had five catches for 70 yards.