Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is attended to on the sideline after being tackled in the fourth quarter. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit— This one should hurt the Lions in every way, a pain that's both short-term and lingering, physical and mental, astounding and vaguely familiar.
The Lions had their moment, leading a big-name opponent late, and then it was gone, inexplicably tossed away. They were about to get a stamp of legitimacy, and instead got stomped in the gut.
How does this happen? How do the Lions go cleat-to-cleat against the Jets, the self-described toughest team around, take a 10-point lead, then blow it the closing minutes?
Once again, the Lions lost their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who left in the fourth quarter with another injury to his throwing shoulder. His health officially has become a gigantic concern. When he departed, so did the Lions' best chance, and so did all the energy from the raucous crowd, which unleashed a mournful wail as Stafford got up holding his arm.
The Lions dropped a game they seemed prepared to take, losing to the Jets 23-20 in overtime Sunday. From a rollicking high, this became a disaster, not because of how the Lions played — they played very well for most of it — but because of what they squandered.
There was the terrible third-down call with 1:54 left, for which Jim Schwartz took responsibility. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and backup quarterback Drew Stanton deserve equal blame for the incompletion to fullback Jerome Felton. The bootleg play had a run-pass option, but Stanton went for the throw and the game-clinching first down. Instead, the clock stopped and the Jets got the ball back with 1:40 left, down 20-17.
If the Lions had run it, the Jets (out of time outs) probably would have taken possession with a minute left. Instead, Mark Sanchez was able to maneuver them into position — helped by a bad late-hit penalty on Julian Peterson — for a 36-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.
From the fans to the coach to the owner, there haven't been many losses as crushing as this. Oh, I know the Lions are only a 2-6 team trying to make progress, so it's not like they lost a playoff opportunity. But they may have lost their young quarterback for an extended period with his fifth injury in a year-and-half, and they lost a supreme chance to join the realm of NFL rising teams.
"We're still a good team, and we've lost a lot of games we shouldn't have lost," owner William Clay Ford Sr. said. "I think the coach is on top of it, and I think we can right ourselves. But you hate to lose this one. With a quarterback's shoulder, you gotta get worried. The prognosis seems to be all right, so we just keep our fingers crossed."
It's always that way for this finger-crossing franchise, isn't it? The atmosphere was tremendous in sold-out Ford Field, and when Nate Burleson caught a looping 2-yard pass from Stafford with 11:51 left, the Lions led 20-10.
The game was theirs. But then Stafford fell on his right shoulder while scrambling from pressure with 5:19 left and everything fell apart, right up until that too-risky, third-down pass with a backup quarterback.
"That's my fault," Schwartz said. "Looking back on it, don't even give (Stanton) the option to pass. I did a poor job of communicating. There were a lot of things we failed to execute at the end."
Historically bad teams don't suddenly get good at closing out games. The Lions' defense surrendered huge plays, but for 54 minutes, they were in semi-control. Stafford was thoroughly outdueling Sanchez. A second consecutive victory was there and then it was gone, and even they couldn't believe it.
'Worst loss in my 10 years'
"This is the worst loss ever in my 10 years here," center Dominic Raiola said. "You're talking about the New York Jets, who call themselves the best team in the AFC. All we had to do was get one first down, nail in the coffin, it's over. That hurt."
It's easy to slap familiar labels on the Lions, but I won't do it in this case. Yes, they blew it at the end, but they were able to physically match the Jets, and they compensated for New York's blanketing of Calvin Johnson with a superb game by Burleson.
Even bombastic Jets coach Rex Ryan felt compelled to declare, "That's not the same old Lions."
'We were the better team'
Just the same ending, followed by the same exasperation. Under Schwartz, the Lions have gotten better, but they're certainly not at a point where they can survive gaffes and injuries. Now, Stafford's status is uncertain, and his backup, Shaun Hill, might not be ready to return from his broken arm.
"Throughout the whole game, I personally felt we were the better team," Burleson said. "I understand the frustration of the fans, but if they feel it, imagine what the guys who bleed and sweat feel? We feel it 100 times worse."
They'll feel it for a while, as long as it takes to win games like this, as long as it takes for their quarterback's pain to go away. Just when you thought the Lions were about to take a leap, they're back to healing old wounds.