Through three quarters on Sunday, the Detroit Lions looked as good as dead. The offense couldn't move the ball, and while the defense was doing a good job of containing the Philadelphia Eagles, you knew it wouldn't last and they'd give up a big play at some point. With the Lions trailing 16-6 with only 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, it looked like it might be time to turn out the lights on the 2012 season and start discussing mock drafts.
It was at this point in the game that the "Cardiac Cats" we got to know so well during their 5-0 start in 2011 returned. There's just something about the fourth quarter with this team. It seems the offense only plays well when its back is against the wall, and that's exactly what happened on Sunday. A quick touchdown cut the deficit to three points, and the offense responded to a 70-yard Eagles touchdown with a score of their own less than two minutes later. Ultimately, the Lions rallied to send the game into overtime, at which point all three phases of the game finally came together. The defense made a huge stop, the offense moved the ball into field goal range and Jason Hanson nailed a 45-yard field goal to give the Lions a much-needed 26-23 victory.
At the start of this game, the offense set the tone for what seemed like it would be another disappointing Sunday afternoon. The Lions got the ball to start the game and promptly went three-and-out. The Eagles responded with a three-and-out of their own thanks in part to Cliff Avril blowing up an end-around for a 14-yard loss. On the ensuing punt, Stefan Logan went for 48 yards on the return, setting the Lions' offense up with outstanding field position. Like usual, the good field position merely resulted in a field goal, as the Lions again went three-and-out.
The Lions' defense kept up its excellent play by forcing another three-and-out. There would be no big return this time since the punt went into the end zone, but the offense didn't need it at the start of its next drive. The Lions opened with a 14-yard Mikel Leshoure run, a 10-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew and a 13-yard run by Joique Bell. Then, after a pair of false starts, Matthew Stafford found Calvin Johnson for a gain of 28 yards. Finally, it looked like the Lions figured things out on offense. Then they got into the red zone and everything went downhill like it has all season long. Gosder Cherilus was flagged for a weak unnecessary roughness penalty, costing the Lions 15 yards and effectively killing the drive. Fast forward a couple plays and Hanson was called upon for another field goal. He once again connected, giving the Lions a 6-0 lead.
With the Lions settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, you knew it was only a matter of time until the Eagles made them pay. The Eagles would eventually make them pay, but not until the end of the second quarter. Before things took a turn for the worst, the Lions' defense came up with a big fumble recovery on a botched snap. Stafford gave it right back with a bad interception on a pass thrown into double coverage, but the defense forced another three-and-out and then got an interception on the next Eagles possession. (The Lions punted in between.) Louis Delmas, in his first game of 2012, came up with the pick, which was the Lions' first interception all season.
Following another Lions drive that really didn't go anywhere, the Eagles' offense finally got it going. The Lions' defense had played outstanding before this next possession, but it was no surprise that it didn't last. Too much pressure was being put on them with the horrendous offense the Lions were displaying, and thanks in part to a weak pass interference penalty on Jacob Lacey at the three-yard line, the Eagles were able to score on a pass from Michael Vick to LeSean McCoy. Despite dominating the Eagles, the Lions trailed 7-6. After another three-and-out and the defense keeping the Eagles out of the end zone in the final minute of the half, the Lions went into the locker room down by one.
To open the second half, the Eagles slowly but surely worked their way down the field. It looked like they were getting ready to start pulling away, but the Lions' defense came up with a stop, forcing the Eagles to settle for a field goal. It wasn't a pretty drive by any means considering the Eagles went 72 yards in 15 plays and 6:37, but it was key for the Lions to bend but not break on this possession.
Right on cue, the Lions' offense responded with a three-and-out, forcing the defense to once again come up with a stop. Just like the last drive, the Lions bent but didn't break. The Eagles did find the end zone, but an offensive pass interference penalty negated the score. A few plays later, the Eagles settled for another field goal, making the score 13-6.
This same sequence played out again as the third quarter came to a close and the fourth quarter began. The Lions went three-and-out and the Eagles connected on yet another field goal. It was now 16-6 in favor of the Eagles with 13:39 left on the clock.
For the Lions' offense, it was really now or never when it came to waking up and doing something. They had only run six plays all half since they couldn't move the chains, and their penchant for settling for field goals was costing them big time. Time was running out, and 1-4 was staring the Lions right in the face.
The Lions needed to put a stop to this nonsense on offense and score a touchdown. Thankfully, they did just that. The Lions opened the drive with a 16-yard run by Nate Burleson on an end-around, and Stafford connected with Johnson for 37 yards on the next play. Three plays later, Stafford connected with Johnson in the end zone for a touchdown, but he was flagged for offensive pass interference. Unlike the Eagles earlier in the second half, the Lions rebounded from the penalty to score a touchdown. Stafford went right back to Johnson, who ran down the sideline and went flying for a first down at the one-yard line. Then, one play later, Stafford walked into the end zone on a perfect bootleg. Johnson was double covered, and he served as a perfect decoy, allowing Stafford to make this a 16-13 game.
The Eagles opened their next drive with a long pass downfield that was intercepted by Chris Houston. Just like that, in two plays, the Lions cut the lead to three points and got the ball back. The offense kept moving the chains, this time with a few runs by Joique Bell, and it looked like they were poised to score a touchdown and complete their comeback. That is, until Rob Sims moved early and forced the Lions into a third-and-15 situation. The Lions couldn't pick up the first down and had to punt the ball away. Three plays later, Vick found a wide open Jeremy Maclin for a 70-yard touchdown. Just as quickly as the Lions scored and got the ball back, they allowed the Eagles to take back control of this game.
Now trailing 23-13 with only 5:18 left in the fourth quarter, the Lions needed a big play of some sort to even have a chance of coming back. That big play came in the form of a 57-yard pass to Tony Scheffler. Stafford unloaded a bomb downfield, and unlike Titus Young earlier in the game on a similar play that ended with a dropped pass, Scheffler made the catch and completely flipped the field. Three plays later, on third-and-15, Stafford threw a perfect pass off his back foot to Burleson, who ran under it and made the catch for a 17-yard touchdown. Suddenly the Lions were right back in the game, only trailing by a field goal.
The Eagles not only went three-and-out after getting the ball back, but they went out of bounds on the first play of the drive and threw an incompletion on third down. This meant that the Lions got the ball back with 2:27 left on the clock. The Lions started at their own 32 and had plenty of time to at the very least tie this game.
Calvin Johnson wasn't interested in a tie. He wanted a win, and he helped put the Lions in position to leave with a victory in regulation with a catch for 17 yards and an amazing grab for 16 yards. The 16-yard completion was originally ruled incomplete, but upon further review, it was clear Johnson dragged his feet and maintained possession. As a result, the Lions were now down to the Philadelphia 25.
Now in position to win the game with a good deal of time left considering the situation, Leshoure carried the ball for eight yards on each of the next two plays, and Stafford scrambled for three yards right after. The Lions were out of timeouts at this point and wasted a lot of time before Stafford took the next snap and threw a pass that drew a defensive pass interference penalty. It was now first-and-goal at the one-yard line, but the Lions were unable to score a touchdown. After two incompletions, there wasn't enough time for one more shot, so the Lions sent Hanson out for a 19-yard field goal. He made the kick, tying the game and sending it to overtime.
The Eagles won the coin toss and got the ball first to start overtime. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise thanks to the Lions' defensive line. They got pressure on Vick all day, although they were struggling at times to turn that pressure into sacks. Not on this drive. Avril brought down Vick on first down for a loss of seven yards. On second down, Nick Fairley and Kyle Vanden Bosch forced Vick down for a loss of 14 yards. On third-and-31 from the four-yard line, Vick had to throw the ball away because of pressure from only a three-man rush.
The Lions nearly fumbled away the ensuing punt, but Logan thankfully fell on the ball at the 50-yard line. Stafford quickly put the Lions in field goal range with a 16-yard pass to Scheffler. A holding penalty on Sims backed the Lions up on the next play, but the Lions bounced back with a 17-yard pass to Johnson. After a couple of runs went nowhere, the Lions sent ol' reliable out to win the game. Hanson, like his other attempts earlier in the game, nailed the field goal from 45 yards out to give the Lions a 26-23 victory. There would be no devastating overtime loss this week, nor would there be a 1-4 start to the season. It was a case of crisis averted for the Lions on Sunday.
Let's make no bones about it. The Lions have to start playing better in all four quarters if they want to make this win mean anything come December. The defense has to eliminate big plays, just as the offense needs to move the chains on a more consistent basis and get big plays of its own once in the red zone. Also, the Lions need to be more disciplined. They were flagged 16 times for 132 yards on Sunday, and most of those penalties were false starts and offsides. The Lions were excellent in the final quarter and overtime, but they can't keep doing nothing for three quarters and hoping for a late comeback. That's not a recipe for consistent success. That especially goes for Stafford, who looked like a rookie in the first three quarters of Sunday's game.
The good news is that the Lions did finally turn things around in the fourth quarter in Philadelphia. The Lions are still only 2-3 and have a long way to go as a football team, but this is the kind of win that could be the spark they needed to get the season turned around. A 1-4 start would have essentially ended their season in the second week of October. By winning, the Lions take a lot of momentum into next week's Monday Night Football showdown with the Chicago Bears. If the Lions can use that momentum to take down a division rival and the team that's in first place in the NFC North, the outlook of this season will be quite a bit different going forward. Rather than thinking about the draft or the future of this coaching staff, the Lions will be right back in the hunt for another trip to the playoffs.