DETROIT – It all felt so familiar. Matthew Stafford getting the ball with less than two minutes left, needing a touchdown to win the game. In 2016, this became almost automatic for the Detroit Lions. And in these situations, despite the odds, the Lions inevitably won.
But Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons was different. It’s a new year -- and with it came a different result. Big plays on the final drive were erased by penalties on Zac Kerin and Marvin Jones. And instead of a signature win, the Lions had one too many mistakes and one too many drives early on that did not work out.
And Stafford, the last-minute football miracle-worker last season, couldn’t convert. What was initially called a touchdown by Golden Tate was changed, and the Lions came up a half-yard short. They fell to Atlanta 30-26, and it’ll be a game Detroit will look back on as a missed opportunity against the defending NFC champions.
The Lions showed something Sunday. They lost, but they looked like a team on par with the Falcons. It didn’t look like a mismatch, but rather a competitive game. And that, for the Lions, is a big step. It validates, in many ways, the wins over the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants. It shows that this team should be in playoff contention – that a division title is possible.
Simply, that they should be considered contenders.
"Absolutely," defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. "And on defense, I can speak for us up front when I say we didn’t play our best ball. We played well but I mean, there were definitely plays out there we could have made more plays but I mean, it just shows where we’re at as a football team, with a Super Bowl contender squeaking out of here with a win, I’m fine with that. You know. If we see them down the road, it’ll be another good game."
They were in this game largely because of their defense, even if 30 points is a lot to allow. Detroit’s defense played exceedingly well, even if it struggled with Devonta Freeman. Its offense, however, couldn’t get enough going. Too many drives ended with Matt Prater field goals instead of touchdowns. Others were thwarted by penalties, drops from Eric Ebron and three-and-outs.
"I think we’re judged by wins and losses obviously, everyone knows that," Stafford said. "Man, it could’ve been a way different game. We had opportunities and we just didn’t capitalize. Too many field goals for us, not enough touchdowns and ultimately not a touchdown at the end. If we get that, this is a whole different session.”
That, for now, is the difference between where the Lions are and where they hope to be by the end of the season. They are clearly close, but not quite there yet. A mistake here. A drop there. That was the difference for Detroit on Sunday afternoon.
The Lions' defense did a good job everywhere other than against Freeman. It picked off Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times (twice on tipped passes). It did a good job keeping star receiver Julio Jones in check. And the defense kept the Lions in the game as the offense struggled throughout the first half.
There was a point last season where Detroit talked a bunch about playing complementary football -- where the offense would carry the defense on a bad day, and vice versa. It’s what made the Lions, who were a dynamic group in the fourth quarter last season, a playoff team. That fourth-quarter magic ended a yard short of a win, with the Lions failing three times to score on goal-to-go from the 1 -- including Tate being a half-yard short on a third down that was initially ruled a touchdown. It was then reversed, and the 10-second clock runoff ended the game.
But the entire final drive and the first two downs were opportunities. Three of them, actually, after a penalty-filled final drive that gave the Lions a chance. But they were opportunities lost, and lost in a truly stunning fashion -- a similar feeling to how they would have felt if they had won.
Here’s the thing, though. There is hope. This team had the feel of a playoff team against the Falcons, and it should be one that is in contention for it the rest of the way. Especially since at least some Lions don't think they are quite there yet.
"No, I don’t think we’re there," Ebron said. "We’ll get there by continuing to try hard, but we’re not there yet. We let this one slip."