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The Lions kept pace in the NFC North race with a hard-fought win over the winless Browns.

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Detroit — Wait, this was supposed to be the easy part, right? Ha. There are no easy parts of an NFL season, certainly not for the Lions, and that was the point of this arduous little exercise.

The Browns are winless, and at key moments Sunday, they were witless. Like when they accidentally ran out of time in the first half with the ball on the Lions’ 2. But they still proved capable of threatening disaster, right up until the time the Lions deftly dodged it.

If you thought this stretch drive was going to be a stroll, you haven’t been paying attention. The Lions opened the second half of their season by rallying for a 38-24 victory over the Browns, clinching it on Matthew Stafford’s toss to Golden Tate, who scooted 40 yards for the final score with 4:28 left.

2017 LIONS SCHEDULE 

As often as Stafford bails out the Lions, Tate has become the dependable accelerator when the engine is idling. He caught six passes for 97 yards on a day when the Lions needed a surprising number of big plays to pull it out. The Browns piled up 413 yards, including a staggering 201 rushing, and those numbers would have been more than enough if these weren’t, you know, the Browns.

The Lions weren’t apologizing for anything after the victory, and they shouldn’t. But they know they can’t have many slow-starting, incomplete performances like this.

“There’s not a coach in this league that’ll tell you whoever they’re playing against, we’re going to beat this team,” Jim Caldwell said. “Often times you may hear somebody in college with a matchup like that. But you don’t hear it in this league because they know what it’s all about and how difficult it is. To me, it’s a good win for us, but we still got a long way to go.”

No cupcakes

The theory is, this is when the schedule softens and the division doors open like a giant gate. A visit to the 3-6 Bears is next, and of the remaining seven games, only the Vikings and Packers have winning records.

The reality, is, the Lions have enough playmakers to beat the Browns, but they’re not barging through any gates this way. In fact, those gates might not be opening as widely as hoped, as the Lions (5-4) still trail the Vikings (7-2) and remain tied with the Packers (5-4), both victorious Sunday.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Stafford, offense get their act together

There was a bit of bad and a bit of good from pretty much everyone on the Lions, not that it matters on the ledger. It only matters if this is a pattern, not just a case of the blahs against the blah Browns (0-9).

Stafford was good at the end, but put the Lions in an early 10-0 hole with a sloppy side-armed interception. Cornerback Nevin Lawson returned a fumble 44 yards for a touchdown, but also was beaten by Kenny Britt for a 19-yard touchdown that gave Cleveland a 10-0 lead.

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That’s when the murmurs started in Ford Field, that the Lions could lose a game they couldn’t possibly lose, as a two-touchdown favorite. When the Browns marched 85 yards on the first drive of the second half to tie it 17-17, doom loomed.

And when DeShone Kizer plowed in from the 1 late in the third quarter to put Cleveland on top 24-17, gloom joined the doom. And let’s be frank here — if Kizer hadn’t left for a while with a rib injury after getting clobbered by Quandre Diggs, the Lions would have been in more trouble. Backup Cody Kessler couldn’t do anything, and when Kizer returned, he was less effective.

Lady Lucky's pearly whites

So did the Lions receive some good fortune? Absolutely. The Browns’ buffoonery at the end of the first half was bizarre, as Kizer ran a quarterback draw from the 2 with 15 seconds left and no timeouts. The Lions wisely took their time unpiling and the clock expired before another play could be run. Browns coach Hue Jackson took the blame for his rookie quarterback and the Lions led at the half 17-10.

But did the Lions also make some good fortune? Absolutely. Stafford was sharp from there, eventually putting them back on top with a nice 29-yard pass to Eric Ebron. Asked how dangerous it seemed when they trailed, Stafford forced a smile that was half-relief, half-confidence.

More:Lions’ Jim Caldwell admits to ‘poor job’ on challenge

“I’ve played a lot of football in my life, I’ve had a lot of bad situations,” he said. “I knew there was a whole lot more time left, and we had to make some adjustments. Once we made adjustments, we went out and played a whole lot better.”

The Browns, coming off their bye, hit Stafford with a bunch of unexpected defensive looks, and it took a while to recover. On the 40-yard clincher to Tate, Stafford burned the blitz and Tate did the rest, churning through the Browns with the quick moves and vision that make him so valuable after the catch.

Of course, it wasn’t all happy news for Tate either, who lost a friendly wager on social media with actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock’s Miami Hurricanes beat Tate’s Notre Dame team, and Tate will have to wear Hurricanes gear and post photos to pay up.

More and more, Tate has been paying off, leading the team with 56 receptions and 659 yards. In addition to his touchdown, he made a great, low grab-and-run for a 35-yard gain. With the returns of left tackle Taylor Decker, who eased his way in for the first time this season, and receiver Kenny Golladay, the Lions are closer to the complete offense that’s supposed to be their strength.

“When we have a full complement of guys, I feel like we’re tough to defend, if we execute,” Stafford said. “It probably wasn’t our most efficient day, but man, we had some big explosives, and those lead to points.”

Facing gloom, the Lions’ offense went boom. In the end, the score made it look easier than it was. And the truth is, this probably is going to be tougher than it appears.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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