Detroit — On the long, long list of staggering Lions losses, add an all-time crusher. In a game of misses and miscues, the Ravens hit the big one, and the Lions dropped a huge one.
This could be impossible to overcome, because the Lions’ playoffs hopes just got pummeled by the most improbable of plays. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker drilled a 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds left to silence a raucous crowd and beat the Lions 18-16 Monday night.
After misfiring much of the night, Matthew Stafford seemed to flip the painful script, firing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria to take the lead. The defense was primed to end it, but then here came Tucker, nailing his sixth field goal — shy of the NFL record of 64 yards — and the gasp from the crowd was deafening. The Lions (7-7) aren’t out of the playoff chase but they’re in serious trouble, plummeting all the way to third in the NFC North.
Not many teams ever have lost like this, but for all the bizarre and unfortunate twists, the Lions put themselves here. Their best players didn’t come through, from Stafford’s continued erratic passing to Calvin Johnson’s damaging drops. After Tucker’s final kick, Stafford threw his third interception, and it was over.
Stafford let the Lions down, briefly picked them up, then let them down again. He wasn’t the only one, and Johnson’s two drops were drive-killers. But Stafford has been awful in this stretch of four losses in five games, throwing 10 interceptions. The repercussions are enormous, because this sure felt like a referendum on reputations, from coach Jim Schwartz to the quarterback to the whole current regime.
A month ago, the Lions were 6-3 and in prime playoff position with division foes Chicago and Green Bay missing injured quarterbacks. Now once again, they need help. Good luck, because this is a team that can’t help itself, and can’t stop destroying itself.
“Me personally, we just didn’t make the plays when they were there for us to make,” Johnson said. “We just let them get away. You can’t lay all the blame on (Stafford). It’s on us, it’s everybody.”
It’s on Schwartz too, whose job security officially is an issue. The Lions have two games remaining – home to the Giants, at the Vikings – and even if they win both, they still need the Bears and Packers to lose once.
This was the pivotal game, arguably the most-important Lions game ever in Ford Field. The Lions declared it a Blue Out and fans complied by dressing in blue, and hoping not to end up blue. From a Blue Out to another Blown Out opportunity, this is the shattered state of the team.
It starts with Stafford, who was throwing behind receivers and over receivers, and one interception came on an off-balance side-arm fling. He was 18 for 34 for 235 yards, and while the 80-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown was impressive, it wasn’t enough.
Stafford looked shell-shocked at times, and his confidence is enough of a concern that Schwartz and others felt compelled to rally behind him.
“I like the character of our team, I like the toughness of our team, and I like our quarterback,” Schwartz said. “Our quarterback is gonna bounce back, and he’s gonna play great over these next two games.”
This was supposed to be the night for the Lions to cleanse themselves, to bathe in waves of blue and turn their season around against the defending Super Bowl champs. No more favors from Chicago and Green Bay, so if the Lions weren’t getting any more freebies, they wouldn’t be giving any more away, right?
Not sure if you’ve noticed, but things generally don’t go as planned with this team. The stadium was packed, the crowd was roaring and a national TV audience would get to see what the Lions were about. And that’s mostly what they saw — glimpses of the good Lions, more images of the bad Lions.
Tucker is a tremendous kicker, but it was still shocking that Ravens coach John Harbaugh elected to try the 61-yarder instead of going for the first down. Tucker drilled it just over the crossbar and barely inside the right upright.
“When it cleared the crossbar, I saw one of the officials put his hands up, and I would say I was little bit surprised,” Tucker said. “I’m just glad it went through.”
It’s hard to figure out how the Lions ended up there after a blistering start. Their first drive was effortless, a 78-yard march to Reggie Bush’s 14-yard touchdown run. Bush didn’t play last week because of an injured calf and looked especially energetic, as if shot out of a starting gate. It was exactly the opening they needed, followed by exactly the miscues they can’t ever seem to shake.
“I didn’t play my best game by any means,” Stafford said. “We put seven on the board, and for one reason or another the rest of that half, and even into the third quarter, it was tough for us to get a rhythm.”
Johnson dropped a long pass on the second drive and dropped another late in the half. Each would’ve produced 25-plus yards and could’ve changed everything. By the time the first half ended, the stadium atmosphere had gone from festive to restive, from boisterous to boozy to simply boos-y.
Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam had created a mini-stir last week because, in the process of praising Johnson, he happened to mention the Lions’ 28-year-old star was “pretty old.” Megatron hadn’t shown his age, but in this game he and others showed something else — big-stage jitters?
“I don’t think Calvin Johnson or Stafford would be jittery, it falls into human beings,” Schwartz said. “As much as we say ‘Megatron,’ there’s still a human element to this game.”
The Lions didn’t get much help on a few key penalty calls (and non-calls), but they could’ve rendered it moot. There was a questionable pass interference on Don Carey, but also a dumb helmet hit by Louis Delmas on a defenseless receiver. This is what the Lions have done, squandering chances, and savvy quarterback Joe Flacco was determined to make them pay.
The Lions are paying painfully and repeatedly. More mistakes, more Stafford inaccuracy, more mistakes. It’s always darkest before the dawn, or bluest before the Blue Out. Right now, the Lions are staring into a black-and-blue abyss.