Although the Detroit Lions entered Sunday not having to worry about clinching a playoff spot, there was still a lot riding on their game against the Green Bay Packers. The Lions had a chance to end their 20-year losing streak at Lambeau Field, and they also had a chance to clinch the No. 5 seed with a victory, thus ensuring they would play the NFC East champion and not the red-hot New Orleans Saints.
Unfortunately, the Lions were unable to accomplish either of those goals on Sunday. They played an outstanding game on offense, but the defense had its worst outing of the season despite Aaron Rodgers not playing. Matt Flynn lit the defense up and led Green Bay to a 45-41 victory. It was just a really frustrating way for the regular season to come to an end, especially considering this was one of the worst officiated games I have seen in some time, and that's saying a lot given the Lions' luck with officials in recent years.
Believe it or not, but the defense actually looked quite good at the start of this game. On the first drive, a few plays after a 17-yard pass from Flynn to Donald Driver, Sammie Hill forced a fumble on a sack. Stephen Tulloch fell on the ball for the recovery, giving the Lions offense outstanding field position. After a seven-yard run by Kevin Smith and a 20-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, Stafford found Titus Young for an eight-yard touchdown, quickly giving the Lions a 7-0 lead.
The Lions added to their lead without even doing anything on the ensuing kickoff. Pat Lee, who was ejected during the first meeting between the Lions and Packers, dropped the kickoff and the ball rolled to the one-yard line. This came after he had issues catching the opening kickoff of the game and nearly gave the Lions a chance to recover it in the end zone for a touchdown. This time he regained the ball and took a knee, but since the ball came out of the end zone and he pulled it back in, it was a safety. The lapse in judgment cost the Packers a possession and made this a 9-0 game.
All momentum was on the Lions' side, but the offense went three-and-out after the free kick. Green Bay took over at its own 32 and slowly but surely worked its way down the field. The Packers went 64 yards in 15 plays and had three third-down conversions. They were unable to pick up a fourth third-down conversion on third-and-goal from the seven and had to settle for a field goal, but this drive was a sign of things to come, unfortunately.
The Packers did what they do best on defense on the next Lions possession by forcing a timely turnover. The Lions were moving the ball well with passes of 21 yards to Brandon Pettigrew and 17 yards to Johnson. It seemed like they were well on their way to adding to their lead, but Smith fumbled on a hit from behind after making a catch. Green Bay recovered the fumble and took over in Detroit territory. This time it took them only seven plays to score, and this time they found the end zone. Flynn hit Jordy Nelson from seven yards out to cap off the drive, which required zero third-down conversions.
The Lions and Packers actually traded punts on the next two possessions. Then the scoring picked up, as did the bad calls. On the second play of the Lions' next drive, Stafford found Tony Scheffler for a gain of 10 yards. The ball came out after Scheffler hit the ground, but amazingly the referees ruled it a fumble. The Lions were forced to challenge since Green Bay recovered the fumble, and the call was overturned. This blown call that required a challenge would become important later in the game. On this drive, luckily, it was merely a small delay in the Lions going down the field. Shortly after, they picked up a fourth-down conversion with three yards to go at the Green Bay 37, and a few plays later Stafford found Johnson for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Lions regained the lead, but they didn't hold it for long. Two plays into the Packers' next drive, Flynn hit Ryan Grant on a screen pass. Grant turned the routine-looking play into a touchdown by going 80 yards down the field. The blown play made this Packers 17, Lions 16 with half of the second quarter remaining.
The next blown call came on the ensuing kickoff. Thanks to an unsportsmanlike penalty after the Green Bay touchdown, the Packers had to kick off from their own 20. Stefan Logan took the kick back 36 yards to the Green Bay 49, but the ball came out after he hit the ground and rolled. Once again, it seemed pretty obvious he was down, but the referees ruled it a fumble. The Lions were forced to challenge since the Packers recovered the fumble, and because there were no replays that clearly showed he was down, the call on the field was upheld. Just based on physics alone he should have been ruled down, but the referees' incompetence gave the ball to the Packers. Since the call was upheld, the Lions were now out of challenges for the rest of the game.
In a classic "ball don't lie" moment, Flynn was picked off by Alphonso Smith on the second play of the next drive. Smith returned it to the Packers 38-yard line, and Stafford hit Johnson for 23 on the first play of the possession. Maurice Morris then ran for four yards, and on second down Stafford hit Young in the back right corner of the end zone. Young had possession of the ball and managed to drag two feet inbounds, but once again the referees blew the call by saying it was an incomplete pass. By not giving the Lions the benefit of the doubt like they did with the Packers' fumble recoveries, the Lions couldn't get the play reviewed. They were out of challenges and there was no automatic review since it wasn't a scoring play. Jim Schwartz actually took a timeout to chew out the refs, but it was to no avail. The call didn't change and the Lions had to settle for a 30-yard field goal after an incompletion on third down. Instead of being up 23-17, the Lions led by only two points. Considering the Lions lost by four points, this turned out to be a huge moment in the game.
The Lions once again didn't hold their lead for long. On the next drive, the Packers went down the field in only four plays and 2:16. After a couple of runs to start the possession, Flynn hit Jermichael Finley on third down for 16 yards. The Packers then got 21 free yards on a pass interference penalty on Eric Wright. On the very next play, Flynn hit Jordy Nelson for a 36-yard touchdown, giving the Packers a 24-19 advantage.
The Lions again didn't have much trouble going down the field, but things stalled at the 21-yard line. This forced them to settle for a 39-yard field goal attempt, and Jason Hanson pushed it wide right. Luckily for the Lions, Mason Crosby missed a 47-yard field goal attempt as the first half came to an end, so the score remained 24-19.
The second half got off to a frustrating start for the Lions. Once again, they were able to move the ball with ease. Johnson picked up a 30-yard catch to move them down to the Green Bay 25. The Packers had no answer for him, and it looked like the Lions would again retake the lead. Instead, the Packers got another timely turnover when Jarrett Bush picked off a pass at the 13-yard line. The pick was really more bad luck than anything, as Nate Burleson slipped and wasn't there for Stafford's pass, which was on target. The target simply wasn't there, allowing Bush to make the interception.
After a three-and-out, Green Bay gave the ball back to Detroit and again got lit up by Stafford. This time Bush whiffed on an interception (at the goal line), allowing Stafford to find Young for a two-yard touchdown on the next play. This was Young's second TD of the game. Amazingly, it should have been his third (the blown call would have been the second) and could have been his fourth (he dropped the ball after diving for a deep pass in the end zone earlier in the game).
Just like the first half, the Lions couldn't follow up a score that gave them the lead with a stop on defense. Also just like the first half, it didn't take the Packers long to go back on top. They had another four-play drive, and this one went 80 yards and was capped off with a touchdown pass to Nelson. Flynn hit him in stride for a 58-yard TD to make it 31-26 in favor of the Packers.
The Lions responded with a quick scoring drive of their own. Stafford hit Johnson for 41 and 27 yards on consecutive plays to flip the field, and a few plays later he found Smith for a five-yard touchdown. The Lions opted to go for two to make it a three-point game, and Stafford found Scheffler in the end zone. The score was now 34-31 in favor of the Lions.
The Lions defense actually forced a three-and-out on the next drive thanks in part to an eight-yard sack by Ndamukong Suh, who celebrated it by doing Aaron Rodgers' "discount double check." Unfortunately, the Packers defense made a stop of its own. When the Lions got the ball back, they got down to the Green Bay 38 on a 24-yard pass to Johnson. After a seven-yard run by Morris, Stafford looked for Johnson again, but the pass was a bit off target and dropped. After two more incompletions, the second of which came on fourth-and-three, Green Bay took over and Flynn ultimately gave the Packers the lead on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Driver halfway through the fourth quarter.
Now trailing 38-34, the Lions needed to respond with another touchdown, but the offense went three-and-out. Luckily, the Packers offense did the same thing after it got the ball back, which shouldn't have even happened. It did because the refs blew yet another call. On the Lions' punt, Nelson called for a fair catch and muffed it. The Lions fell on the ball, but for some reason an official blew the play dead. This was yet another crucial blown call, as the Lions would have had outstanding field position.
After Green Bay punted, the Lions took over at their own seven-yard line but had little trouble scoring. Stafford led them down the field 93 yards in only 2:22 and hit Scheffler on third-and-goal from the 12 for a touchdown. The score came after a defensive pass interference penalty gave the Lions 36 yards and Scheffler picked up 26 yards on an awesome catch where he tipped the ball to himself with one hand. It also came after an offensive pass interference penalty on Johnson, which is how the Lions ended up on the 12 despite originally having it first-and-goal from the 12.
Since the Lions scored so quickly, they gave Green Bay 2:39 to work with. All the Packers needed was a field goal to tie the game, but Flynn continued to carve up the Lions defense and easily scored the go-ahead touchdown on a four-yard pass to Finley. The touchdown was made possible by an encroachment penalty by Suh on third-and-three, along with a 40-yard pass to James Jones on third-and-four a few plays later.
Although the Lions were now down 45-41 with only 1:10 to go, I don't think any Lions fan was ready to concede this game. Stafford has led the Lions to go-ahead scores in situations like this before, and with how well he was playing and how bad the Packers secondary looked, a touchdown seemed like it was destined to happen. That especially looked like the case after Stafford began the drive with passes that went for 12, 10 and 21 yards. Unfortunately, the Lions' last-minute drive came to an abrupt end on the very next play. Stafford was picked off on a pass intended for Burleson, and that was the end of the road for the Lions. Green Bay ran out the final 25 seconds with a kneel-down and celebrated yet another victory at home over the Lions.
This was the type of game where it felt like you were repeatedly being punched in the face all afternoon. Although the offense played out of this world, the defense's awfulness combined with the referees' stunning incompetence made for a long, long, long day. It was unbelievable that the Lions lost out on a touchdown not only because of how moronic the refs were, but also because of how moronic the NFL's replay system is. It was just as unbelievable that the Lions managed to get burned over and over by a backup quarterback making his second career start. Yes, the secondary is banged up, but to lose to a team that was sitting so many of its starters, including the NFL's likely MVP, is just embarrassing. It's also a sign that the losing streak at Lambeau Field may never come to an end.
The good news is the Lions took care of business at home on Christmas Eve against the San Diego Chargers and are still headed to the playoffs. Regardless of how poorly Sunday went in terms of what happened on the field, the Lions' playoff drought is over. We knew that going in, and despite the sour finish to the regular season, fans should be proud of this team. They have managed to go from 0-16 to 10-6 and the playoffs in just three seasons. That is no small feat by any means.
Because the Lions lost and the Atlanta Falcons won, Detroit fell to No. 6 in the NFC. This means the Lions get the pleasure of heading to New Orleans to face the Saints, which are really playing better football than anybody in the league right now. Because of this and the Lions' ugly defensive performance on Sunday, seemingly everybody is picking the Saints to win. The expectation is for Drew Brees to throw for at least 500 yards and four or five touchdowns considering Flynn went for 480 yards and six touchdowns on Sunday.
I can't blame anybody for picking New Orleans. My confidence is pretty low right now in the Lions' ability to upset the Saints. That said, people completely writing off the Lions' chances should take a look at the Lions' offense, the Saints' passing defense and the simple fact that anything can happen on any given Sunday (err, Saturday in this case). Very few people expected the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks to beat the Saints a year ago, but they downed New Orleans 41-36. Granted, that game was in Seattle and nobody with the running ability of Marshawn Lynch will be suiting up for the Lions on Saturday night at the Superdome, but stranger things have happened. Just look at the 10-6 Packers winning last year's Super Bowl despite being the sixth seed. Anything can happen in the playoffs.
At this point, I'm just glad the Lions are playoff bound. Even if they lose to the Saints, this season was a definite success and a step in the right direction. There is still room for improvement on both sides of the ball (running game on offense and secondary on defense, for example) and just in general (penalty issues), but the Lions have already come a long way from the 0-16 season of three years ago.
Come Saturday night, take a second to enjoy the fact that you are watching a Lions playoff game. I wasn't sure this moment would ever come, but now we are just five days away from the first Lions playoff game in 12 years. Sure, their chances of winning don't seem great. But considering they've got Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, I'm not about to suddenly lose all hope in this team. There aren't many teams that can hang with the Saints, but the Lions have the talent to do just that. And if Saturday becomes a shootout, all it takes is a blown call or an unlucky turnover to change the result of the game. The Lions found that out on Sunday, and who's to say the Saints won't on Saturday night in New Orleans?