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Detroit fell to 2-1 with a heartbreaking loss to Atlanta. We also hit on Caldwell's extension and the NFL's anthem protests.

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Detroit – It began as a strange day and ended absurdly, with the Lions seemingly winning a stunner, then losing a stunner, then trying to explain where this ranked on their list of excruciating stunners.

They fell about 2 inches and two seconds short of a dizzying comeback against the NFC’s best team. Almost as incredible, they fell into the snare of another obscure NFL rule, which sealed the Falcons’ 30-26 victory Sunday, seconds after Golden Tate’s 1-yard touchdown reception appeared to win it.

The specifics are tedious and confusing, but this is all you need to remember forevermore – the 10 Second Runoff. Add it to the Lions’ lexicon, and go ahead and lament the ridiculousness of how the rule was applied with eight seconds remaining. And then, sorry to say, acknowledge the Lions had no recourse, as the rule was technically applied correctly.

“It’s tough to digest all that right now,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “In hindsight, we can complain all we want, but they administered the rule exactly the way that it’s written.”

Of course, it wasn’t exactly written for circumstances like this, and you can bet the Lions once again will unwittingly spur debate about a rule that needs to be reworked. With 12 seconds left, facing third-and-goal from the Falcons’ 1, with no timeouts, Stafford was on the verge of another remarkable rally, driving the Lions from their own 11 in slightly more than two minutes.

Stafford’s quick slant pass hit Tate low, and the receiver grabbed it and squirted into the end zone. Ford Field suddenly was a raucous revival meeting, the Lions led 32-30, and they were about to go 3-0 and knock off the team that should’ve won the Super Bowl last year.

And then they were about to be gut-punched to reality. Replay review showed Tate’s knee grazed the ground as an Atlanta player touched him, with the ball inches short of the goal line. Fourth down, eight seconds, time for one more play, right? Oh, you haven’t watched the Lions much, have you?

Good rule gone bad

The 10-second runoff is designed to keep teams from stopping the clock when they’re out of timeouts. If a team is tied or trailing in the final minute and one of its players gets injured, regardless of the authenticity, 10 seconds are automatically erased. Same thing for a penalty, preventing a team from creating an unwarranted stoppage.

In theory, good rule. In reality, the Lions were punished not for a fake attempt to stop the clock, but because of the officials’ own review of their own missed call.

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Think about that. If the refs had immediately called it correctly that Tate was down, the Lions could’ve raced up and perhaps taken another snap within eight seconds. But because of the review, they lost the touchdown, then lost the final ticks on the clock. And here’s the confusing part — they likely would’ve been rebuffed either way. If Tate was ruled short and a review confirmed it, it appears the run-off also would’ve been implemented.

Tate said he wasn’t aware of the rule, not that it would’ve mattered if he was.

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts to lose one like that at home,” Tate told Fox 2 afterward. “But I think if anything, we’re going to find a way to learn from this and try to bounce back next week.”

While pointing out the peculiar nuance of the rule, I’m not giving the Lions an excuse. And to their credit, they weren’t making any. Eric Ebron has to catch passes that hit him in the hands, simple as that. The Lions have to get a more-consistent burst from Ameer Abdullah. The Falcons beat them at the line of scrimmage with a superior running game, and the Lions needed an opportunistic defense — three interceptions, two by Darius Slay — to hang in there.

But hang in, they did. Stafford was off at times, brilliant at times. He moved them effortlessly on the final drive, then threw four incompletions from inside the 20. The Lions were bitterly disappointed afterward, but far from crushed.

Stafford knows the drill. Ten-second runoff? Heck, it seems like the Lions have been in a 10-year runoff. Teammate Shaun Hill threw the infamous Calvin Johnson “complete-the-process” pass seven years ago that took away a potential winning touchdown and sparked an endless debate.

“It’s not up for us to debate,” Stafford said. “It’s not fun, that’s a really good team we played, and played ’em down to the wire and had multiple opportunities to beat them. It’s just tough for me as a quarterback, with the ball in my hands, I wish I could’ve gotten us in. It’s kind of what I do, and I didn’t get it done.”

Opening old wounds

It’s what Stafford has done more times than any quarterback in recent years. But the Falcons are dynamic and seasoned, and they know a bit about the agonizing final inches of a tight game, losing the Super Bowl in overtime to the Patriots.

In narrow defeat, the Lions surely didn’t dampen their fans’ enthusiasm, but scraped open a few old wounds. Let the 10-Second Runoff argument rage.

“I just think it’s hard to punish a team on a review, when it’s your review,” said Glover Quin, who returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown. “If that’s the rule, that’s the rule. But sometimes rules are made and they’re not always thought all the way through.”

On a long, heated day, the bizarre ending was somehow apropos. In case the metaphor wasn’t clear, smoke billowed outside the Lions dressing room afterward, the result of a small fire in a food-warming tray. It was not, as you might suspect, emanating from Stafford’s ears. It was not, as you might wish, a ritualistic sacrifice of the NFL rule book.

It was just smoke, no mirrors for the Lions. And it was up to Caldwell, the always-composed leader, to sum it up. The day before, it was announced he’d agreed to a contract extension, which was earned and deserved. Before the game, Lions players stood arm in arm along the sideline, with owner Martha Ford right in the middle, in response to acerbic comments from Donald Trump deriding players’ silent protests during the national anthem,

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Caldwell eloquently, perfectly explained the display of unity and civility. And then he returned to what just happened, trying to digest the indigestible.

“Our guys fought hard, and there were a lot of things I think we could’ve done better,” Caldwell said. “So we’ve got to pick up the pieces. You can look at it in a way and act as if it’s the end of the world. It’s not.”

If the Lions have shown something different the past couple years, it’s that they shake off disappointment pretty well. This one might take a little more time, considerably longer than 10 seconds.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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