DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 20: Kevin Smith #30 of the Detroit Lions gets in for a second quarter touchdown past Cletis Gordon #25 and Sherrod Martin #23 of the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field on November 20, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Midway through the second quarter on Sunday, the Detroit Lions seemed ready to collapse. The season appeared to be on the verge of disaster, as the Lions found themselves trailing 24-7 to the Carolina Panthers. A loss would have been a crushing blow to the Lions' playoff hopes and their psyche, especially considering they were blown out by the Chicago Bears a week earlier. Already some people were proclaiming this season to be a repeat of 2007, when the Lions started 6-2 before going 1-7 in the second half of the season.
In order to prevent the seemingly inevitable meltdown that would follow a loss to the Panthers, the Lions needed to make yet another comeback from a three-score deficit. Just as they did against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys earlier this season, a comeback is exactly what happened. The Lions caught fire in the second half and scored 35 points in the final two quarters. All Carolina could muster was one second half touchdown, and by the time the game came to an end, the Lions surprisingly emerged victorious, winning by a score of 49-35.
The Lions got off to a terrible start in this game thanks to three turnovers in the first quarter. After Matthew Stafford missed his receivers on deep balls twice in a row to open the game, he made a bad read on the third play and was picked off. The Lions defense bailed Stafford out with an Eric Wright interception on the third play of the ensuing possession, but Stafford gave the ball back to Carolina nine plays into the next Detroit drive by throwing yet another interception.
Thanks to a 29-yard run by DeAngelo Williams and a pair of 21-yard passes by Newton, the Panthers were able to capitalize on Stafford's second INT. Carolina failed to get the ball into the end zone, but they did get on the board with a 27-yard Olindo Mare field goal, making this a 3-0 game early.
The Lions had hopes of responding to the turnover with points of their own, but instead they gave the ball back to the Panthers yet again. On third-and-one from their own 29-yard line, the Lions turned the ball over when Keiland Williams fumbled. The Panthers came away with the ball, and five plays later Newton found Steve Smith in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. After one quarter in Detroit, the Panthers held a surprising 10-0 lead.
The Lions finally found some offense as the second quarter began, and it came from an unlikely source: Kevin Smith. Seeing his first extensive playing time since rejoining the Lions a couple weeks ago, Smith made his mark with a 43-yard run and a 28-yard touchdown reception on back-to-back plays. The touchdown reception came on a perfectly executed screen pass that included some excellent downfield blocking. Smith's two big plays powered a three-play, 80-yard drive that put the Lions right back in this game.
Unfortunately for the Lions, they couldn't sustain the momentum generated from the quick touchdown because they committed their second huge special teams error in as many weeks. The Lions coaches seemingly haven't realized that the coverage unit is just not very good, and once again Jason Hanson kicked the ball in the end zone with some extra hang time in hopes of pinning the returner inside the 20. Instead Kealoha Pilares took the kick back 101 yards for a touchdown that silenced Ford Field and stunned Lions fans. Just when they seemed to be back in the game, the Lions fell behind by 10 points once again, and the bleeding wasn't about to stop.
After going three-and-out, the Panthers took over at the Detroit 48-yard line. The defense made a stop and forced a three-and-out of their own, but an illegal use of the hands penalty by Andre Fluellen on the punt gave Carolina a first down and the ball back. The Panthers made Detroit pay, as Williams rushed for 26 yards and Newton went for 11 and a touchdown on the next two plays. Newton's rushing TD gave the Panthers a 24-7 lead, and at this point it looked like the wheels were coming off for Detroit.
In need of a drive to spark a comeback, the Lions came out firing. Stafford looked as sharp as ever on the ensuing drive and drove the Lions 80 yards in 12 plays. He completed some big passes, including a 17-yarder to Calvin Johnson on the drive's opening play and a 15-yarder to Nate Burleson on third-and-12. Later in the drive, after a pass to Maurice Morris got Detroit down to the three-yard line, Stafford hit Titus Young on a quick route for a touchdown.
The Panthers added a field goal before halftime to take a 27-14 lead into the break. Carolina started the second half with the ball, but the Lions defense made a quick stop. Stefan Logan took the first punt of the third quarter back 16 yards and also picked up a horse collar tackle at the end of the return. This resulted in the Lions offense taking over at the Carolina 30, and it didn't take long for them to find the end zone. Stafford connected with Young for 11 yards, Burleson for three and Burleson again for 16 and a touchdown. The score capped off a drive that lasted less than a minute and a half, and with almost 12 minutes left in the third quarter, the Lions trailed by only six points.
Following another quick stop, the Lions picked up where they left off on offense. After Smith ran for nine yards, Stafford found Johnson for a gain of 26. Morris then ran for 16, and three plays later Stafford hit Tony Scheffler in the end zone for a 17-yard score. Scheffler celebrated the touchdown with yet another dance, and rightfully so considering it put the Lions on top, 28-27.
The Panthers were poised for a three-and-out, but a horse collar penalty on Cliff Avril kept their drive alive. A 26-yard pass play quickly moved Carolina into Detroit territory, and the Panthers were threatening to retake the lead. Ndamukong Suh had other ideas, though. He blew up the offensive lineman tasked with blocking him and got in Newton's face. Newton made an off-balance throw because of the pressure, and DeAndre Levy was there to make a leaping interception.
The Lions and Panthers traded punts as the third quarter came to a close and the fourth quarter began. On the Lions' first drive of the fourth quarter, they pounded the ball on the ground. Smith had rushes of 19, 10 and four yards. The four-yard run was for a touchdown that put the Lions on top by eight points with about eight minutes left in regulation.
Thanks to a couple big plays, the Panthers quickly erased the eight-point deficit. Newton passed to Jonathan Stewart for a gain of 26 yards, and then Williams picked up 32 yards on a pass from Newton. Avril was flagged for another horse collar penalty, and Newton ran into the end zone from six yards out on the very next play. Newton found Smith in the end zone on the two-point conversion to tie the game up at 35.
The Lions offense didn't miss a beat and again put together a quick scoring drive. The Lions went 68 yards on seven plays in only 2:27, and the drive was capped off by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew on third down. Just like that the Lions were back on top.
Carolina was unable to battle back this time around. On the only play of the following drive, Stephen Tulloch tipped a Newton pass, allowing Chris Harris to make a relatively easy interception. He returned the pick 19 yards to the Carolina 23. After picking up one and three yards on the first two plays of the next drive, Smith busted loose for 19 and a touchdown on the third play. The Lions now led 49-35, and this game was as good as over.
The game was officially over after Tulloch picked off Newton on the next Panthers possession, allowing Stafford to take a knee twice to run out the clock. The Lions held on for a 49-35 victory that was both ugly and impressive at the same time. On the one hand, Detroit never should have found itself in such a big hole against a 2-7 team, but on the other hand, they played some excellent football in the final two and a half quarters en route to a two-touchdown win.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the Lions won and are now 7-3 on the season. There's no doubt they need to improve in all three phases of the game, though. The offense can't afford to turn the ball over like it did in the first quarter. Stafford especially needs to limit his mistakes, which he did a nice job of in the final three quarters. He went from having people calling for him to be benched to playing lights out, and the final three quarters showed that his finger injury isn't too bothersome after all. On defense, the Lions need to stop allowing so many big plays. Overall, the defense was pretty good, but Carolina was able to pick up too many explosion plays. Finally, on special teams, the coverage units must improve. Allowing a touchdown return for the second week in a row is unacceptable, and the Lions are lucky it didn't cost them the game this week.
Win or not, normally much of the next week would be spent dwelling on some of the mistakes from the previous game. This isn't a normal week by any means, though. The Lions take on the 10-0 Green Bay Packers on Thursday, and as a result there isn't time to worry about what happened on Sunday. All of the focus is quickly being turned toward the Thanksgiving showdown with Green Bay, and rightfully so. Thursday's game is quite possibly the biggest of the season with the Lions looking to end the Packers' undefeated streak, snap their losing streak on Thanksgiving and move another step closer to securing a playoff spot.
Upsetting the Packers won't be easy, but the Lions could make quite the statement by giving Green Bay its first loss since last December in a nationally televised game. More importantly, the Lions could also make it known that the NFC North race isn't over just yet with a win, so a lot is riding on Thursday's game.