Throughout the past two seasons and especially in recent weeks, Detroit Lions fans have had a lot of gripes with the officiating. Especially lately, the penalties have become more and more of an issue, and some of the calls have seemed more about the Lions' rep than anything else.
There were numerous flags thrown again on the Lions on Sunday, including some questionable calls. However, the biggest story from the game wasn't a Lions penalty, but rather the lack of a flag on a blatant facemask on DeAndre Levy on the final play of the game. No penalty was called, and instead of having another shot at the end zone from the one-yard line, the Vikings fumbled the ball and their chances of winning away. Detroit recovered the fumble (in Vikings territory, amazingly enough) and held on for the 34-28 victory. The Lions can finally say that a crucial blown call went their way, and the end result is that they have eight wins for the first time in 11 years.
This game, much like the first meeting this season between these two teams, was a story of two halves. This time it was the Lions that dominated in the first half, and it was thanks mainly to their defense. After Detroit's first drive of the game quickly stalled, for example, the defense came up big on the first offensive play of the game for the Vikings. Cliff Avril, just as he has done so many times this season, beat his blocker and hit Christian Ponder from behind, forcing a fumble. The ball bounced into the end zone, where it was recovered by Stephen Tulloch for a touchdown.
The Vikings got the ball back and once again turned it over. After Percy Harvin ran for 32 yards on an end around, Ponder threw into coverage and was picked off by Alphonso Smith. The Lions took over at the 50-yard line, and after taking a sack for a loss of 10 yards on second down, Matthew Stafford threw a perfect pass to Titus Young on third-and-14. Young caught the pass in stride and scored for a 57-yard touchdown. He had the ball knocked loose by a defender at the end of the play, but he had already crossed the goal line for a touchdown.
The Lions continued to pour it on with another quick score following a Minnesota three-and-out. A 28-yard return by Stefan Logan set the Lions up with good field position, and it didn't take long for the score to read 21-0. Stafford found Brandon Pettigrew for gains of 17 and 12 yards, the latter of which went for a touchdown.
This game looked like it was going to get out of hand, but the Vikings suddenly found life on offense and moved the ball extremely efficiently. Minnesota only faced one third down on the next drive, and on play No. 10 of the possession, Ponder found Visanthe Shiancoe for a seven-yard touchdown. The score cut the deficit to 14 points.
The Lions were unable to score on their next possession, but the defense made sure that didn't matter by forcing yet another turnover. Smith jumped his receiver's route perfectly and picked off Ponder for his second interception of the game. He proceeded to return the interception 30 yards for a touchdown and broke out the "Thriller" dance rather than the "Carlton" that we saw last year after a pick-six.
To their credit, the Vikings once again shook off the mistake and rebounded with a nice drive. They moved down the field 60 yards on 10 plays in less than five minutes and scored on a six-yard pass from Ponder to Harvin. The score put Minnesota back within two touchdowns.
Chances are the Vikings would have remained behind by two scores going into halftime had it not been for Lorenzo Booker's gift to the Lions. After trading punts, the Vikings got the ball back at their own 16, and on the first play of the drive Booker fumbled it without even being touched. He just lost control and Sammie Hill recovered for the Lions, giving them the ball at the Minnesota 19. The Lions were unable to score a touchdown off of this turnover, but they did at least get a field goal by Jason Hanson, making this a 17-point game. The Vikings tried to score before halftime, but any thought of that came to an end after a Kyle Vanden Bosch sack resulted in a fumble and a loss of 15 yards after Toby Gerhart fell on it.
The Vikings began the second half with another up-and-down drive. On one play, Ponder found Devin Aromashodu for 28 yards. On the very next, he made an awful decision and threw off his back foot. Unsurprisingly, the pass was intercepted by Eric Wright for the fourth Vikings turnover of the game.
The Lions didn't put any points on the board after this turnover, and Minnesota got the ball back at their 12-yard line after a punt. Joe Webb came in to replace the struggling Ponder, who appeared to be benched rather than forced out of the game with an injury. (Stephen Tulloch blocked him hard on the interception return and was penalized for the hit.) At first, this looked like a good thing for the Lions. Although Ponder was struggling, Webb isn't exactly known for his great quarterbacking, so the Lions appeared to be in pretty good shape. This turned out to be the complete opposite of what happened, though.
Although Webb is known as a one-dimensional quarterback, the Lions weren't able to stop that one dimension -- running the ball -- on his first drive in the game. Webb scrambled for gains of three, nine and 65 yards during the possession. The 65-yard run came on third-and-10 and went for a touchdown, making this a 10-point game.
The Lions answered with a 15-play, 88-yard drive that took more than seven minutes off the clock. It was a solid possession, but because the Lions got stuffed on third-and-two from the three-yard line, they had to settle for a field goal. The kick was good, giving them a 34-21 lead, but it was disappointing that they couldn't put the game out of reach with a touchdown.
Not scoring a touchdown was especially disappointing after the Vikings came out and shredded the Lions defense for the second drive in a row. Webb was having more success scrambling, and because the Lions were worried about containing him on the ground, suddenly the passing game opened up a bit. The end result was Webb moving the Vikings 52 yards down the field in 12 plays and scoring a touchdown on a two-yard pass to Gerhart. Now the Lions' lead was down to six points.
After once again failing to move the ball in a short-yardage situation, the Lions were forced to punt. They couldn't pick up a first down on second-and-one and third-and-two, and Minnesota took over at its own 20-yard line. Once again, just like the last two drives, the Vikings were able to move down the field quite efficiently. They were doing it in small chunks, but the key was they were moving down the field. They converted on fourth-and-one at their own 42, and later in the drive Webb scrambled for 10 on fourth-and-six from the Detroit 12-yard line. Webb hurried to the line to spike the ball, and amazingly Avril jumped offside. Now it was first-and-goal from the one-yard line with nine seconds left.
On what ended up being the final play of the game, the Lions decided to stop trying to contain Webb and sent a blitz. The pressure forced Webb to try and scramble, and Levy knocked the ball out of his hands. Levy also grabbed Webb's facemask in the process, but amazingly no flag was thrown. The loose ball was batted around by Tulloch, picked up by Webb, fumbled again and finally recovered at the Minnesota 43 (yes, that's 56 yards away from where the play started) by Avril to end the game. The Lions survived to win, 34-28.
Before moving on to other things, let me just say this about the missed facemask call: The referees absolutely blew the call and the Lions are lucky they did. As a fan who has been on the negative side of a blown call far too often, I feel for Vikings fans. At the same time, though, I'm in complete agreement with Levy on this one:
#Lions LB DeAndre Levy on the facemask no-call: "We get a lot of calls called against us, so, I mean, they owed us one if I did"
Yes, it was a blown call, but it's nice to have one go in the Lions' favor for once, especially considering it could have been the difference between falling to 7-6 and improving to 8-5. The Vikings still would have had to score on the next play if there had been a flag, but the hearts of Lions fans everywhere are thankful it didn't come to that. After the fumble was finally recovered, the Lions were able to walk off the field knowing they have won more games in this season already than any other Lions team since 2000. It certainly wasn't pretty, but a win is a win at the end of the day.
Of course, just because the Lions won doesn't mean there aren't some serious concerns going forward. The offense was atrocious in this game and was outgained 425-280. Of course, the Lions' two defensive touchdowns took away some possessions, but the Lions once again struggled to consistently move the ball, especially in short-yardage situations. Considering how many injuries the Vikings are dealing with on defense, that is not a good sign.
On defense, it is a bit concerning that Webb was able to come in and torch the Lions like he did. Then again, the caveat is that the Lions obviously did not prepare to face Webb. That was a big mistake considering he took most of the Vikings' first-team reps this week, but I'm going to chalk this up to not being ready for a much different quarterback than Ponder. Plus, with how much injuries are piling up, the Lions had to play a lot of guys that typically wouldn't be in the lineup. That's no excuse for being lit up like that, but hopefully next week the Lions won't be without guys like Chris Houston, Louis Delmas, Justin Durant, Nick Fairley, Lawrence Jackson, Ndamukong Suh (who will be back from his suspension) and even Eric Wright and Aaron Berry, who got hurt during the game.
In any case, the Lions are off to Oakland next Sunday to take on the Raiders. With or without some of the guys mentioned above, this is a game the Lions should win and a game they really need to win in order to remain in good shape in the playoff picture.