The final product of the Detroit Lions' first regular-season game in London was a resoundingly positive experience. The Lions mounted another odds-defying comeback and climbed to the top of the NFC North standings as they head into the bye week at the halfway point in the season.
However, both teams displayed terrible in-game awareness and made some awful choices that drastically hurt their chances of winning the game. The Lions were able to overcome those mistakes; the Atlanta Falcons weren't so lucky.
One of the earliest coaching gaffes in this game came from the Lions' sideline. Already down 14 points, the Lions faced a fourth-and-6 at the Falcons' 37-yard line. If you don't know this yet, please read up on it, because punting inside of the opponent's 40-yard line is a sin that should immediately cost coaches their job. There is almost no justification to ever punt inside of the opponent's 40-yard line. Down by 14 with a moderate 6 yards to go, the choice is pretty clear:
The field position battle that the Lions "won" only lasted a possession for each team before the Falcons extended their lead to 21.
By going for it, not only are you giving yourself an opportunity to keep the ball away from the Falcons offense, which had been dominating the game, but you get a chance to earn some much-needed points from a struggling offense. Punting potentially saved the Lions 30 yards of field position, but they basically forfeited a good chance to come away with a score.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions (down 11) faced a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Though a field goal technically made it a one-possession game, again the Lions seemed to forgo a big opportunity to pull within three or four points with plenty of time on the clock. Going for it obviously risks coming away with nothing, but the byproduct of that is forcing Atlanta to start deep in their own territory, a place on the field where Detroit's defense has been dominant in the past.
These two errors, while annoying, are extremely common among NFL coaches. Whether it is their desire to appear safe and not put their jobs at risk or they really don't know how to play the odds properly is unknown. But the mistakes made later on in the game were inexcusable at best and downright idiotic at worst.
First, let's start with Atlanta. Their final possession started with 3:56 on the clock. A few first downs should have ended the game, even with the Lions having all three timeouts. After two quick first-down conversions, the Falcons had three downs to run clock and the Lions only had one timeout left with just two minutes remaining. If the Falcons ran the ball three times, this is how the math would have worked out (approximately):
Play 1: 5 seconds for the play, Lions timeout, 1:55 remaining
Play 2: 5 seconds for the play, additional 40 seconds run off the clock, 1:10 remaining
Play 3: 5 seconds for the play, additional 40 seconds run off the clock, 0:25 remaining
Add in the time it takes to punt and the Lions likely would have had the ball deep in their own territory with no more than 18 seconds left. Game over.
However, after running the ball on first down, the Falcons ran it again on second down, but Ndamukong Suh burst into the backfield and drew a holding penalty, stopping the clock. This saved the Lions 40 seconds. The play call wasn't the biggest issue here, but the Falcons could have just as easily taken knees without the risk of a penalty.
Their biggest mistake came on third down, when they decided to pass the ball. Granted, the play call was a safe, easy throw to make, but all it took was a dropped pass and the Lions were awarded another 40 seconds that they had no business having. Atlanta's worst-case scenario had they decided to run the ball, even with the penalty on second down, was Detroit having the ball back with under a minute and deep in their own zone. Instead, the Lions had 1:38, which was more than enough time to get into field goal range.
And that's when things got even weirder.
After two huge plays to Golden Tate and Theo Riddick (#TheoRiddickHypeTrain), the Lions' strategy went to hell. The Lions eventually arrived at the Falcons' 31-yard line, where they spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock with 34 seconds remaining. Given the Lions' trouble with kicking, you'd think that they'd continue to pass the ball to gain more yards, giving Matt Prater an easier kick while conserving time to get even closer. Instead, the Lions ran the ball on second down, essentially giving themselves one more play and putting the entire game on the leg of Prater. It would have been a 48-yard field goal, 4 yards longer than a kick he has already missed this season.
BUT THEN ATLANTA CALLED A TIMEOUT. I still have no justification for this move by Atlanta. If they were trying to conserve time for their own comeback, that was an extremely misguided attempt. It was Atlanta's final timeout, so if the Lions wanted to make sure the Falcons didn't get the ball back, they could have (and they did).
So after the timeout, the Lions faced a third down with 25 seconds left and no timeouts for either team. They then dialed up the dumbest play I have seen a professional coaching staff make, and I honestly don't think I'm exaggerating. They ran the ball up the middle, with no timeouts. No effort to gain any extra yards. No effort to conserve time. They ran the ball straight up the middle, meaning they would have to rush the field goal team onto the field in less than 20 seconds and kick the field goal with no time for Prater to prepare. Chances are extremely good that the Lions don't get set up in time, or if they do, Prater is too hurried and shanks the kick.
The only justification I can make for this play call is that the coaching staff did not realize it was third down (because they spiked on first down) and were planning on spiking the ball with seconds left. Because it was fourth down, a spike obviously would have resulted in a turnover on downs. If that was actually what was going through the mind of Jim Caldwell, then that shows an alarming lack of awareness from him and everyone on the coaching staff. The Lions were fortunately bailed out by a defensive holding call that stopped the clock for them.
And to top it all off, after that entire fiasco, the Lions continued to run the ball, apparently satisfied with a 43 (then 48)-yard field goal attempt to win the game. The holding penalty provided the Lions with a fresh set of downs to take some quick, safe passes to get chunks of yardage and give themselves a better field goal opportunity. But they quickly ran the clock down and put their entire fate on a kicker who was 2-for-4 going into the game. It was a risk that probably should have cost them the game, but a questionable delay of game penalty bailed them out again, and they eventually prevailed.
Clock-management issues are no stranger to Caldwell, and it was part of the reason I was very skeptical of his hire. Fortunately for the Lions, those issues laid dormant for the first seven weeks of the season. But Sunday's game provided a glimpse into what could happen down the line, a Chekhov's Clock Management, if you will. If the Lions don't learn from this situation, it could cost them dearly down the road. They won't always get that second kick.