In the five seasons this blog has been around, I have watched a lot of Lions losses and have had to write a lot of depressing recaps. This may surprise you, but none compares to this one. As bad as some of the Lions games have been over the years, whether they lost in blowout fashion or did something stupid to go down at the end, none stings quite as much as watching them blow a 10-point lead today against the New York Jets.
Detroit was up by double digits with only a few minutes left, and all I could think about was how big this win would be. A victory over a team like the Jets could be the turning point for this season and the franchise. With two winnable road games coming up, I saw it as making a .500 record possible going into Thanksgiving and making talk of getting into the NFC North title hunt not sound so crazy.
Unfortunately, all of this internal hope came crashing down right as Matthew Stafford landed on his throwing shoulder and left with yet another injury. The Lions punted the ball away and New York began it comeback, eventually scoring 10 straight points to end regulation. In overtime, the Jets got the ball and wasted little time in going down the field to set up another field goal, this time to win the game, 23-20.
The first half of this game was a defensive struggle outside of a few drives. One of those rare drives where the defense didn't do all that much was on the first possession of the game. The Lions got the ball and worked their way down the field, converting third downs and benefiting from numerous Jets penalties. Eventually, Detroit was down in the red zone and Brandon Pettigrew caught a 10-yard pass from Stafford for a touchdown, putting the Lions on top early, 7-0.
The next eight drives ended in punts, which shows just how well the two defenses were playing. New York eventually did get something going toward the end of the first half, though. Their first drive of the day where the offense had any success resulted in a field goal because a fumbled snap on third down stalled things and forced them to settle for a kick. Folk's field goal was good, and it got the Jets on the board. After the Lions punted yet again on the ensuing possession, the Jets turned that field goal into a way to take the lead going into halftime, because Mark Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards for a 74-yard touchdown. Alphonso Smith was right with Edwards on the coverage, but he missed the ball by about an inch, allowing Edwards to make the catch and walk into the end zone untouched for the go-ahead score.
To open the third quarter, the Jets seemed to be moving the ball again before Edwards had it taken away from him by Louis Delmas near midfield. Edwards was very lazy with protecting the ball and had it stripped by Delmas on a simple tackle attempt. Delmas quickly fell on it, giving the Lions a big boost of momentum.
Detroit quickly took advantage of the turnover by moving the ball in chunks on passes to Nate Burleson and Jahvid Best. Eventually the Lions found themselves with first and goal on the four-yard line, but they just couldn't punch it in for a touchdown. It was a bit disappointing to settle for a field goal, but Jason Hanson's kick tied the game at 10 -- for a few seconds anyway. After the kick, Hanson had his leg rolled on by a diving Trevor Pryce, injuring Hanson and prompting the referees to throw a flag for roughing the kicker. The Lions accepted the call, giving them a fresh set of downs at the one-yard line.
This whole sequence of events turned out to be very important. On the very next play, Stafford executed a perfect fake to Best and ran into the end zone untouched for a TD. The Lions were suddenly on top, but without a healthy Hanson, they had to get a bit unconventional for the extra point. Rather than go for the two-point conversion, Jim Schwartz opted to send defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh out there to attempt the PAT. Some may have been surprised to see a DT kick an extra point, but Suh has made field goals from at least 35 yards out during practice and grew up playing soccer, so he is probably the second best kicker on the team. That's why Schwartz sent him out there, and Suh's kick on the extra point didn't look all that bad. Unfortunately for Detroit, he just pushed it a foot too far to the right and clanked it off the upright, meaning the Lions' lead was only 13-10 instead of 14-10.
The Detroit defense played really well on the next two drives, forcing a turnover (Alphonso Smith picked off another pass) and forcing a stop on a short field. The end result was the Lions taking over at their own 10-yard line as the third quarter came to an end. Just like the first drive of the game, the offense played well and moved down the field thanks to some clutch third-down conversions and a big penalty by the Jets.
On this particular drive, the first big third-down conversion came when Burleson caught a pass on third and six and ran 36 yards to put the ball on the New York 28. Two plays later came the big penalty, a pass interference call on Eric Smith in the end zone (Pettigrew almost made an awesome catch despite being interfered with). Three plays later came the second huge third-down conversion, as Stafford found Burleson for a two-yard touchdown on third and goal. The TD put the Lions up by 10 points with 11:51 to play, and as the teams traded punts on the next few drives, you could start to smell an upset victory for Detroit.
The Lions took over at their own seven-yard line with 6:45 to play, still ahead by 10 points, and were in a position where a couple first downs and flipping the field position could have been all they needed to seal the victory. Unfortunately no first downs happened, because Matthew Stafford got hurt on second down. He stepped up in the pocket and scrambled for a gain of a yard rather than just throw the ball away, and in the process he landed directly on his right shoulder. The fall didn't seem hard by any means, but Stafford was already sore from some hits earlier in the game. As a result, this direct landing knocked him out of the game and forced Drew Stanton into action. Facing third and 10, Stanton tried to run but was stopped four yards short, forcing a punt.
When the Jets got the ball back, they were at their own 44-yard line and managed to score a touchdown in only a minute and 40 seconds. The Lions went into the prevent defense, giving Sanchez plenty of time to throw. Although they did force the Jets to use the middle of the field, New York had no problem whatsoever with that, moving the ball when the Lions continually failed to make tackles. A 25-yard pass to Dustin Keller put the Jets on the six-yard line, and two plays later Sanchez scored on a quarterback sneak. Suddenly this was a three-point game with 2:46 left on the clock.
Although the Jets only had one timeout left (they burned two on the Lions' TD drive in the fourth quarter because they accidentally had 12 players on the field on two separate occasions), they decided to kick the ball deep and trust their defense to make a stop. If Stafford was still in the game that mindset might have been different, but with Stanton in the game, it turned out to be the right move.
The Lions forced the Jets to use their final timeout on first down, giving the ball to Best for a loss of two yards. The next play took the clock down to the two-minute warning, with Best picking up six yards. Coming out of the two-minute warning, the Lions faced third and six at their own 38-yard line. They could either try to run for the first down and take off another 40 or so seconds, giving the Jets less time to work with, or they could try to pass for the first down, potentially stopping the clock in the process. Unfortunately, they opted for the latter option, and Stanton threw an absolutely stupid pass to Jerome Felton, who couldn't make the catch. Stanton had no one open downfield and was under pressure, so the wise thing would have been to fall down and keep the clock moving. Stanton instead got rid of the ball and threw an incompletion, stopping the clock on a pass that wouldn't have even come close to moving the chains.
The Jets got the ball back with 1:40 left on the clock at their own 22-yard line after a Nick Harris punt. Sanchez got the Jets moving on a big third-down conversion that picked up 11 yards. He then found LaDainian Tomlinson for a gain of 10 yards, putting the ball at the Jets 44-yard line. On the next play, Sanchez went to Tomlinson again, who turned upfield for a gain of 13. Just as he went out of bounds Julian Peterson made the bonehead play of the game, hitting Tomlinson and drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. The flag gave the Jets 15 free yards and put them in field goal range, allowing Nick Folk to easily make a 36-yarder after the Jets essentially settled for overtime.
New York won the toss and got the ball to start overtime, and that was all she wrote for the Lions. Santonio Holmes caught a pass and turned it into a gain of 52 yards on the second play of overtime, putting the Jets well within Folk's range. After giving the ball to Tomlinson two times, Folk came out and nailed a 30-yard field goal to give the Jets the 23-20 victory.
Although the Lions had some bad luck with all of the injuries they suffered today (Stafford, Hanson, Cliff Avril and Chris Houston are just some of the guys that got hurt), this was a flat out choke job. From stopping the clock with the Stanton incompletion on that third down to Peterson getting a late hit to set up the game-tying field goal, this was a game the Lions should have won and gave away. Credit the Jets for making the comeback and wasting little time in scoring in overtime, but the Lions should have won and just simply couldn't close out because of some dumb mistakes.
I will say, the Lions played a hell of a game minus the final few minutes of regulation and overtime, so that's the good news. They not only managed to hang with one of the better teams in the league, but they were dominating them, especially defensively. The problem is games are not 55 minutes long, so this great performance will be overshadowed by the fact that they didn't win. The inability to close out a game like this probably should be the main thing we take away from it, but if you're going to look for the silver lining, just look at how well the Lions played for the majority of today's game.
The obvious negative from today, aside from the fact that the Lions lost, is that Stafford once again injured his shoulder. At this point it's not clear how severe this injury is, but I can no longer ignore those that call him injury prone. Perhaps his shoulder wasn't fully healed to begin with, but Stafford got banged up today on a routine fall to the ground. I don't buy the argument some have put out there about how he shouldn't have been rushed back, because he played awesome today. While it's possible his shoulder wasn't completely healed and that is why he got hurt, the risk of injury is there on every play, regardless of what happened eight weeks ago. At some point you have to expect Stafford to just go out there and play and make it through an entire game, especially when the Lions' season is far from over, which was the case coming into today.
A lot of this will depend on Stafford's health, but the Lions must find a way to bounce back next week when they play at Buffalo. Is today's loss deflating beyond belief? Yes. Is it tough to swallow given how well the Lions played? Absolutely. But the Lions need to shake it off and leave the worrying about "what if" to the fans. The reality of the situation is that Detroit is 2-6, but the next two weeks they play the 0-8 Bills and the 1-6 (and soon to be 1-7) Cowboys. These are two games the Lions should win, regardless of the fact that they are on the road.
I don't envision us talking much about climbing to the top of the NFC North standings in the coming weeks (had we won today that talk would have been worthwhile), but the season is not lost just yet. I may change my tune if Stafford's injury keeps him out and Hill isn't able to return soon, but the Lions have shown how well they can play, and they get to face two bad teams in the next couple of weeks. If the Lions can win and get to four victories going into Thanksgiving, then they will once again have a chance to make things interesting in the final month of the season. A win today would have really made things interesting considering 5-5 would have been possible, but for now let's just take a deep breath and try to move forward. Yes, the Lions missed out on a golden opportunity to down the Jets today, and concerns about Stafford's health are for sure warranted, but I'm just going to take solace in the fact that two extremely winnable games are coming up for Detroit. It certainly beats thinking about the choke job we all witnessed today.