Matthew Stafford knew he was about to get blasted from behind. Calvin Johnson was surrounded by three defenders in the end zone. There was only one thing to do — throw it up.
Johnson, who caught nine passes for 155 yards, rose up above linebacker Vontaze Burfict and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka and came down with it in the end zone — a 50-yard touchdown that got the Lions back to even, 24-24, early in the fourth quarter.
“Great catch,” Stafford said. “It was a tough call. I rolled right. They did a great job of playing deep-to-short (coverages) today with Calvin on the field. I held it as long as I could and threw it.
“I didn’t get to see a whole lot of it. I saw the very end of it and it was one of the best catches I have ever seen.”
Johnson’s protégé and workout partner A.J. Green was impressed, too.
“Dang man, that was unbelievable,” said Green, who also had 155 receiving yards and an 82-yard touchdown. “That was the best I ever seen.”
Green and Johnson exchanged jerseys after the game.
“I was behind Reggie (Nelson) right there and I saw him stop his feet to go up and get it,” Johnson said. “So I knew I had to get right behind him and go on top of him in the air and go get it. Matt left it up there with a lot of air so I could go do it.”
One thing about that catch, though — don’t call it a Hail Mary.
“That wasn’t a Hail Mary, we had schemed that up,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “Matt had to buy a little time in the pocket. We saw that guy bearing down on him and didn’t know if he was going to get that ball off.
“That touchdown was a big play. It gave us momentum. We had a chance to make a couple of plays and we were never able to get that next score. That next score would have been the difference in the game.”
Corey Hilliard said it was his fault. Dylan Gandy told him it wasn’t.
Hilliard stood by his story. He was the one who missed the block on Bengals defensive Carlos Dunlap, allowing him free access to kicker David Akers’ 34-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Lions up 13-7 at the end of the first half.
“The blocked field goal was completely my fault,” said Hilliard, who would leave the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. “It was my fault, man. They had a look where the guy swam and I got out of position. That play turned the game.”
There was more to it than just Hilliard missing his block. Starting left tackle Riley Reiff was out of the game with a hamstring injury. Rookie LaAdrian Waddle was in his spot on the field goal team. There were a couple players who were in different spots, according to coach Jim Schwartz.
“We had bad technique on one,” Schwartz said, perhaps referencing Hilliard’s missed block. “They may have sort of jumped the snap count and they made a good play on it. We didn’t execute.”
It wound up being a 10-point swing — the three points missed and the seven points the Bengals got after recovering the block and scoring on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones.
The second half of that blocked field goal was mystifying. Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick scooped it up then seemed to fumble it forward and then later, he shuffled it forward to Reggie Nelson.
The forward lateral gained the Bengals an additional 15 yards on the return.
Schwartz looked like he was going to challenge the play but after talking to one of the officials decided to put his challenge flag away.
“The official told me it didn’t matter,” Schwartz said. “He said on a blocked kick you could do that. There’s no such thing as a forward fumble on a blocked kick.”
Perhaps something was lost in the translation there. Schwartz may have been talking about the forward fumble when he should have specifically challenged the forward lateral.
Either way, the Bengals were able to start that drive at the Lions 40 instead of their own 45.
The sellout crowd at Ford Field got a little antsy when the Lions opted to run the ball on first down on their final offensive possession. There was 1:43 left and the Lions were backed up on their own 6.
Rest assured, Schwartz was not playing for overtime.
“We had two timeouts, so if we can get a first down right there, we can go put ourselves in position to go hit the game-winner rather than give up the game-winner,” he said. “We wanted to stay aggressive right there.”
Stafford said the first-down pass would have been from the end zone and with the way the Bengals were blitzing, it would have been risky. Johnson agreed.
“We wanted to get out of that area a little bit,” he said. “We had four-yard gain and we gave ourselves a little breathing room. You want to give yourself a little room so you can back up and throw the ball without having to worry about the end line and the end zone.”
What was most frustrating to Johnson and Stafford was the no-call on a potential pass interference on second-and-4 from the 23. Johnson appeared to be tackled on his route.
“Wish we could have got a call there,” Johnson said.
Added Schwartz: “Calvin gets a lot of attention, lot of pushing and grabbing and contact. I didn’t have a good enough look at it but if Calvin thinks he was interfered with, he probably was.”