OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18: Ndamukong Suh #90 of the Detroit Lions celebrates after they came from behind to beat the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on December 18, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
With 2:14 left in the fourth quarter and no timeouts, the Detroit Lions took over at their own two-yard line. They trailed by six points and needed some late-game heroics against the Oakland Raiders to pull off the comeback. Fortunately, the Lions have Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and the two connected three times, including once for a six-yard touchdown, to give Detroit the go-ahead score. Fast forward 39 seconds to a blocked field goal by Ndamukong Suh and the Lions walked off the field winners by a score of 28-27.
The victory means the Lions are now 9-5 on the season. This is their first winning season since 2000, and the Lions can clinch their first trip to the playoffs since 1999 with a win over the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve next week. Who would've thought that just three years after going 0-16 the Lions would be in position to clinch a playoff spot? They have come a long way as a franchise, and now they are one win away from returning to the postseason.
For most of Sunday's game, it looked like the Lions were going to blow their opportunity to move a step closer to a playoff spot. The Lions got off to yet another slow start, and in general it was a pretty sloppy game on both sides of the ball. Just look at the first four drives of the game.
The Lions got the ball first and had to punt after moving the chains only once, and Oakland quickly moved down the field after getting the ball. On fourth-and-one, the Raiders had a man wide open in the end zone, but the pass was off target. The Lions caught a huge break, but they couldn't do anything with it and had to again quickly punt. This time the Raiders quickly moved down the field and scored a touchdown thanks in part to several penalties by the Lions. A pair of horse collars and an illegal contact call gave Oakland quite a few free yards, and Louis Murphy found the end zone on a reverse for a 12-yard touchdown to cap off the ugly drive for Detroit.
The Lions responded with a big play from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. Megatron had been pretty silent over the last month, but he went off on Sunday in Oakland, starting with a 51-yard touchdown reception. He blew by a few Raiders defenders and Stafford hit him in stride with a perfect pass for the touchdown. Just like that it was a 7-7 game.
After Oakland and Detroit traded punts on the next couple drives, the Raiders found the end zone again on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to Darrius Heyward-Bey. The play should have produced nothing more than a routine first down, but Chris Houston had an awful tackle attempt and allowed Heyward-Bey to break free for a touchdown. The TD put the Raiders back on top by seven points.
After again trading punts, this time the Lions were the team to return to the end zone. On the seventh play of the drive, Stafford found an open Nate Burleson, who jetted up the middle of the field for a touchdown. This game was once again tied, but thanks to a 46-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski at the end of the second quarter, Oakland held a three-point advantage going into halftime.
The first three drives of the second half produced three more punts. Thanks to a solid return by Stefan Logan on the third one, the Lions took over at their own 40. Despite taking an offensive pass interference penalty, the Lions wasted little time in moving past midfield. Unfortunately, the drive stalled immediately after the Lions entered Oakland territory. Burleson was marked short of a first down on second down, and Kevin Smith was stuffed for no gain on a leap on third-and-one. On fourth-and-one, the Lions decided to give it to Keiland Williams, who was lined up as the fullback. He also got stuffed, and Oakland took over since the Lions turned the ball over on downs.
The Raiders appeared to be well on their way to making this a two-score game, but Justin Durant had other ideas. Heyward-Bey turned another relatively routine catch into a big gain, but Durant stripped the ball as he brought him down. Alphonso Smith quickly picked it up, and the Lions were able to keep this a three-point game. Oakland forced a punt and Janikowski nailed a 51-yard kick on the ensuing drive to make it 20-14, but it was still only a one-score game.
Hope that the Lions would come back and win this game started fading when Stafford fumbled the ball on third-and-10 deep in Lions territory. The ball was recovered by Aaron Curry at the six-yard line, and he ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Now the deficit was two scores (only 13 points since the Raiders opted to not go for two) with only 7:47 to go, and time was running out for a comeback.
Stafford shook off the disaster of a last drive and calmly moved the Lions down the field. The 10-play drive included passes of 17 yards to Brandon Pettigrew and 24 to Johnson, and it was capped off with a three-yard touchdown pass to Titus Young. The TD pass came after Stafford rushed for five yards on a quarterback draw on fourth-and-two to keep the drive and the Lions' hopes of winning alive. The score put the Lions back within six points, and they only ran 2:48 off the clock, leaving them about five minutes to make a stop, get the ball back and score again.
After Michael Bush ran for a first down and then picked up five yards to make it second-and-five from the 50, the Lions were in some trouble. They were out of timeouts and had to make a stop. A first down would have either allowed Oakland to run the clock out or possibly allowed Janikowski to hit a field goal and put the game out of reach. On second down, Bush picked up two more yards, setting up the biggest play of the game: third-and-three from the Detroit 48. Rather than run the ball, the Raiders went with the risky decision of throwing a pass. Palmer had a man open, but the ball bounced off the receiver's fingers and dropped to the ground. The Lions got a stop and the clock stopped as well.
Shane Lechler, who is by far the best punter in the league, showed why he is so valuable by punting the ball to the two-yard line, where it was downed by the Raiders. Stafford and the Lions had to go 98 yards to win the game. Amazingly, they did just that in only 1:35. Stafford found Pettigrew and Burleson for eight yards each, and then Johnson made an outstanding catch on the sideline for a gain of 21. Stafford threw a ball down the field on the next play and somehow Johnson came away with it despite having two Raiders on him. The catch was almost fielded like a punt, and it picked up 48 yards for the Lions. A holding penalty backed Detroit up to the Oakland 23, but a pass interference penalty on the Raiders gave them 17 free yards. Two plays later, Stafford found an open Johnson in the back of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. Jason Hanson nailed the extra point, giving the Lions a 28-27 lead with 39 seconds to go in the game.
Oakland only returned the ensuing kickoff to the 16-yard line, and although they did pick up 13 and 21 yards on the first two plays of the drive, they had to use up one of their final two timeouts. On first-and-10 from the 50, Cliff Avril came from behind and hauled Palmer down for a huge two-yard sack. Oakland was forced to burn its third and final timeout, and after Palmer found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for six yards two plays later, all they had time for was a 65-yard field goal attempt by Janikowski. Considering he's made kicks from 63 yards out before, an NFL record 65-yarder wouldn't have been a total surprise, especially given the Lions' luck with field goals like this in the past. Ndamukong Suh made sure there was no rewriting of the record books, however. He blocked the kick to seal the Lions' 28-27 victory and made everybody take notice that he was in fact back from his suspension.
Once again, this was a sloppy game for the Lions, but at this point I'm not going to complain. It was a thrilling victory and a game that playoff-caliber teams have to win. Stafford, Johnson, the defense and even the special teams came through in the clutch, and the Lions are now one win away from the playoffs as a result.
I think a win at Ford Field to clinch the playoffs would be quite the early Christmas present, and the Lions will take on the Chargers at 4:05 p.m. next Saturday (on CBS) with the chance to do just that.