For the first time since Dec. 5, 2010, the Detroit Lions have lost a game. Admittedly, it's an odd feeling. Lions fans experienced plenty of losing in the past decade, but most of the time nothing was on the line. On Sunday, however, the Lions had the chance to go 6-0. Now losses mean something beyond improving their position in the draft. Losing like this is tough to get used to, especially after the Lions won their nine previous regular season games and 13 previous games overall going into Sunday.
Throughout the 2011 season, the Lions were able to get by with playing sloppy football. Even against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team they pummeled, the Lions didn't play a complete game. For weeks we have been saying that there is lots of room for improvement, and that was evident on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. The Lions didn't play well, and they couldn't get away with it against the 49ers. They almost did, but the 49ers ultimately proved to be too tough of a team for the Lions to overcome, and they handed Detroit a 25-19 loss.
From the very start of this game, things were not going well offensively, but like the first five weeks of the season, it didn't seem to matter. After a three-and-out to start the game, for example, the Lions quickly got the ball back thanks to Kyle Vanden Bosch stripping and recovering the football from Alex Smith in one motion. Vanden Bosch beat his man around the edge and simply took the ball away from Smith on the first offensive play of the game for the 49ers.
The Lions offense took over at the San Francisco 32 and picked up 15 free yards thanks to a roughing the passer penalty on Aldon Smith. Matthew Stafford ran for nine yards on the next play, and the Lions suddenly had the ball at the three-yard line. Unfortunately, that's as far as they got. The 49ers stood tough and kept Detroit out of the end zone, and the Lions ultimately had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Jason Hanson.
After three straight three-and-outs between the two teams, the Lions offense put together a solid drive. Stafford got into a rhythm working out of the no huddle, and the Lions picked up gains of six yards on a pass to Brandon Pettigrew, 13 yards on a run by Jahvid Best and 11 yards on a pass to Calvin Johnson. The Lions also picked up 19 yards on a defensive pass interference penalty. A few plays later, the Lions found the end zone on a tremendous catch by Pettigrew from 16 yards out. He had two defenders on him and managed to come down with the ball to put the Lions on top by a score of 10-0.
Things started to go downhill for the Lions as the first quarter came to an end. Frank Gore finally busted loose and picked up 47 yards on the first play for the 49ers in Lions territory. Two plays later, Gore scored from a yard out to put the 49ers on the board and cut the deficit to three points.
Things especially went downhill for the Lions in the second quarter. Gore's touchdown came on the first play of the second quarter, and after the two teams again traded three-and-outs a few times, Stafford was sacked in the end zone for a safety. The Lions started the drive on their own 11, and Stafford was brought down on the first and only play of the possession. He was able to get rid of the ball before his knee hit the ground, but it was a moot point considering the referees ruled he was sacked and it would have been intentional grounding for a safety anyway.
The 49ers weren't able to capitalize on the safety by adding any points on the ensuing drive, but they pinned the Lions even deeper in their own territory on the punt. The Lions, needing to get their offense going, went back to the no huddle, and once again Stafford got into a rhythm. He drove the Lions down to the San Francisco 23 and completed a pass to Nate Burleson for a gain of 15. A chop block penalty was called on the Lions on that play, however, and it was the definition of a drive-killing flag. The Lions were backed up to the 38 and the drive predictably stalled. Hanson came out for a 52-yard field goal attempt and he surprisingly pushed it wide right for his first miss of the season.
With 55 seconds left in the half, the 49ers were only able to get the ball down to the Detroit 37. It didn't matter, though. David Akers was able to kick a 55-yard field goal as time expired, giving the 49ers a 12-10 lead. Just like the last three weeks, the Lions found themselves trailing at halftime.
The Lions have showed they are a better team in the second half in recent weeks, and that looked to be the case again on Sunday. The defense came out and forced a three-and-out, and the Lions offense went down the field and retook the lead on a 24-yard Hanson field goal.
The 49ers took the momentum back on their next drive. Gore busted free again, and this time he ran for 55 yards. The referees added 15 yards to the play with a weak horse collar penalty called on Chris Houston. It looked like the 49ers were going to find the end zone, but the Lions defense made a stop thanks to Michael Crabtree not being able to get two feet down inbounds (he got one foot down twice, but that doesn't count as two feet) and thanks to Delanie Walker dropping a pass with no defenders around him. The 49ers had to settle for a field goal, but they still regained the lead.
Just like they did a couple of times earlier in the game, the two teams couldn't get anything going on offense and traded punts for a few possessions. The Lions needed a shot in the arm to get something going and it came in the form of an Amari Spievey interception. Alex Smith threw a pass over Crabtree's head and it went right to Spievey, who caught the ball and returned it to the San Francisco 49.
The Lions moved down the field and scored eight plays later. Stafford found an open Burleson in the back of the end zone from five yards out for the touchdown. It was only ruled a touchdown after a challenge, though. Originally the referees ruled the pass was incomplete because Burleson lost control of it when he went to the ground near the goalpost netting behind the end zone. Despite taking three steps and making a clear football move, it looked like the dreaded "Calvin Johnson rule" struck again. Surprisingly, the referees overturned their original call after the challenge and awarded Burleson a touchdown. I thought the NFL's decision to not clarify the rule that cost the Lions a game a year ago was going to cost them again, but this crew of officials interpreted the rule differently.
After the touchdown, the Lions opted to go for two in order to make this a six-point game. Their try was unsuccessful, and in hindsight it probably would have been better just to kick the extra point. While a six-point lead is certainly better than five, only being up four turned out to put them at a disadvantage at the end of the game. (More on that in a second.)
There were four more punts between the two teams in the next four possessions. The final punt during this span (by the Lions) went only 39 yards and was returned by Ted Ginn Jr. for 40 yards. This put the 49ers at Detroit's 35-yard line, and after three separate runs that went for nine yards, the 49ers were inside the Lions' 10-yard line. The Lions defense appeared to be rising to the occasion to make a stop, but on fourth-and-goal from the six-yard line, Smith completed a pass to Walker for a touchdown. Walker was hit before the goal line, but his momentum took him into the end zone. The play was reviewed, but it was clear Walker broke the plane a split second before his knee was down.
With the 49ers now leading by a score of 22-19, the Lions could only tie the game with a field goal. Of course, they needed to move into field goal range for that to even be relevant, and the 49ers made sure that didn't happen. Detroit's drive looked like this: five-yard pass to Pettigrew, incompletion, incompletion, incompletion. The Lions turned the ball over on downs with 1:16 to go in the game. Since they had all three of their timeouts and the 49ers were content with running into the pile three times and kicking a field goal, the Lions did still have a chance to win.
The Lions trailed 25-19 after a 37-yard Akers field goal and had 1:02 to go 80 yards with no timeouts. A last-minute touchdown drive seemed unlikely, but it would have been nice to see the Lions do something more than they did. Stafford was sacked on the first play of the drive, and they showed absolutely no sense of urgency whatsoever. A pass to Maurice Morris went for eight yards, but the clock kept running. After an incompletion on the next play, the Lions had only five seconds left. Stafford completed a pass to Johnson and he lateraled it to Titus Young, but the ball was fumbled and Young simply fell on it. Game over. Winning streak over.
This game was a case of sloppy play finally catching up with the Lions. Their offense was not good at all, and Stafford looked quite off all day. He threw a ton of inaccurate passes and couldn't feel the pressure at all. I guess to be fair to Stafford, the offensive line did him no favors and struggled mightily both in pass protection and opening up holes on the ground. The Lions only picked up 66 yards on 18 carries, and their lack of a running game was a big blow when they led 19-15 and could have used just one clock-killing drive.
Defensively, the Lions did a good job limiting Smith in the passing game. They did not do a good job containing Gore, though. He picked up 141 yards on 15 carries. While most of those yards came on two plays, the 49ers rushed for seven yards a carry overall. It was more than just Gore who was exposing the Lions' bad run defense.
Finally, this was an awful game for the Lions from a special teams standpoint. Hanson missed his first field goal of the season, and the punt coverage was not good. Ryan Donahue had what seemed like the worst game of his young career by averaging only 43.8 yards a punt. San Francisco's punter, on the other hand, averaged 47.8 yards a punt. The small difference in yardage meant that the 49ers were able to contain Stefan Logan, but the Lions could not slow down Ginn Jr., who averaged 24 yards a return and set up the go-ahead touchdown with his 40-yard return late in the game.
The silver lining of this loss is the Lions are still 5-1 and are in great position to make a playoff run. While it's obviously disappointing they lost to the 49ers and they do have a number of flaws that need to be corrected, let's not forget they were a few inches away from winning this game. Had Walker's knee come down a split second earlier than it did, the Lions would have been able to run out the clock and overcome another sloppy performance.
Let's also not forget that the 49ers are a good team. They are now 5-1, and their defense is probably one of, if not the best, the Lions will see all season. Their defensive line did a great job of pressuring Stafford, and this goes without saying, but Patrick Willis is a beast at linebacker. Offensively, the 49ers have an outstanding running back in Gore, a solid group of receivers and tight ends in Crabtree, Walker and Vernon Davis and a quarterback who is doing a good job of managing the game in Smith. They also have a fiery coach in Jim Harbaugh who has the 49ers playing some great football. They are a team the Lions could see down the road in the playoffs, and I think we can all agree that that would be a welcomed matchup after what went down between Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz after Sunday's game.
As much as this loss stings, the Lions can't let it turn into another loss. They have to shake it off and look ahead toward next Sunday's game at home against the Atlanta Falcons. At 3-3, the Falcons have been one of the more disappointing teams so far this season and haven't played a lot of great football. Their three losses did come to good teams in the Bears, Buccaneers and Packers, but their three wins were only by four points over the Eagles, two points over the Seahawks and two touchdowns over the Panthers. They have loads of talent, but so far, like the Lions, they have played a lot of sloppy football. The difference is the Lions were able to overcome their sloppy play in every game before Sunday.
Hopefully what happened against the 49ers (during and after the game) will light a fire under the Lions. They were punched in the mouth by the 49ers on Sunday, and how they respond will set the tone for the rest of the season. If they come out flat again next week against the Falcons, there truly will be reason for concern going forward. If they come out and punch the Falcons in the mouth, however, then the season will be right back on track going into the Broncos game and the bye week. Obviously, let's all hope for the latter scenario and the start of a new winning streak.