Justin Rogers, Bob Wojnowski, and John Niyo break down the Detroit Lions' 20-19 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Detroit — In one exhilarating flurry, all seemed good again for the Lions. There was Cam Newton, standing, looking, standing, looking, finally firing a pass high and wide into the end zone, past the receiver, into the turf.
Ford Field erupted as Carolina’s two-point conversion failed with 1:07 left and the Lions escaped with a 20-19 victory Sunday. In a snapshot, it was a celebratory moment for the Lions and their success-starved fans, a credit to Matt Patricia for rallying his team in the midst of growing criticism.
But in the grand scheme, what does it truly mean? Unfortunately for the Lions, not as much as it could have, not enough. They’re 4-6, and may have lost rookie star Kerryon Johnson to a left knee injury. He departed in the third quarter after a 3-yard run, and was in pain and tears on the sideline training table before heading to the locker room.
The Lions won the game without injured receiver Marvin Jones, and now likely will be without Johnson when the Bears visit on Thanksgiving. Patricia had no update on Johnson’s condition, although there were reports it was a knee sprain.
If Johnson is out for an extended period, that bad news trumps the good news of a solid victory. Johnson has been a marvel at times, and was on his way again Sunday, finishing with 87 yards on 15 carries. For the season, the second-round pick from Auburn has 641 yards and a 5.4 average, and possesses a burst that suggests he’ll be special.
If he’s sidelined, the Lions will use LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick more, and perhaps Zach Zenner. They also might regret letting Ameer Abdullah go just two weeks ago.
Win or wilt
This was a game both teams desperately needed, for Carolina (6-4) to stay in the playoff hunt and for the Lions to snap a three-game losing streak and show they weren’t ready to cash anything in. By winning, they perhaps assured a more festive atmosphere in Ford Field Thursday. Beyond that, finding deeper meaning in a Lions game is always a difficult, dangerous exercise.
One thing seems certain: Kenny Golladay is an emerging star and a quiet leader, with eight receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. He’s fast and physical and feisty, and his acrobatic 19-yard touchdown catch from Matthew Stafford with 5:13 remaining proved to be the winner. There’s a big chunk of the offense waiting to be grabbed, and Golladay seems determined to grab it.
“Of course (defenses) know Golden (Tate) is gone, they know Marvin is out, so who else are they going to look to?” Golladay said. “And you know, I just got to take on that challenge. The whole offense has to take on the challenge. They’re going to double me and do whatever they want to do, and other guys have to pick up the slack, which we all did.”
There were good signs, the same signs we’re always waiting to see more consistently from the Lions. Part of that is the nature of the up-and-down NFL, and part is the nature of a Lions team still searching for a strength to lean on.
After three straight dispiriting losses, they showed again that given time and protection, Stafford can be an effective quarterback (one sack, zero interceptions). We also saw Patricia again scheme together a patchwork defense against a tough opponent, as the Lions shut down Carolina’s running game and at least partly contained Newton.
In three home victories, the Lions have beaten Tom Brady and the Patriots, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and Newton’s Panthers. They’ve also lost to the likes of the Jets and the 49ers.
Hey, after years and years of trying, maybe the Lions are stumbling across the mystery winning formula. First, make sure opposing kickers keep shanking and clanking kicks. Carolina’s Graham Gano banged a 34-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright, and also missed an extra point. Six weeks ago, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby famously stared down Ford Field’s menacing goalposts and missed five kicks.
Second, make sure MVP-type quarterbacks keep coming to Ford Field. I asked safety Glover Quin if the Lions are especially inspired by opposing stars, and he shook it off.
“It ain’t nothing really about them,” Quin said. “We’re playing at home, the home crowd is awesome, we come out and play with energy and make some plays and get going. I don’t know if it’s getting up more for certain quarterbacks, but if that’s what you want to call it, sure, run with it.”
There’s one player who readily admits to craving the challenge, and he’s the Lions’ most important defensive player, cornerback Darius Slay. With Slay sidelined last week in Chicago, the Lions were carved up by Mitch Trubisky.
Back in the lineup Sunday, Slay was his usual energetic self, and his biggest play came at the end of a botched play. Newton completed a pass to DJ Moore, who was churning toward an apparent touchdown, when Slay caught him from behind at the Lions’ 12 after an 82-yard gain. Three plays later, Gano clanked the field goal attempt.
Slay was in the end zone on the key two-point play too, when Panthers coach Ron Rivera gambled to go for the win. It wasn’t a bad bet, considering Gano’s struggles and Newton’s mobility, but the Lions’ secondary held up fine as Newton had plenty of time to throw, before finally misfiring.
The Lions said they weren’t insulted the Panthers went for the win, and in fact, Slay appreciated it.
“I love when they put the pressure on the defense,” Slay said. “We try to take as much pressure as we can off No. 9 (Stafford), because he’s already got a lot. Quarterback is the toughest position to play, so we try to make his job easier. We want all the pressure on the defense.”
Ah, be careful what you wish for, although in the Lions’ biggest victories, the defense has made the big plays. The other predictive factor for success: Johnson’s rushing. In the four victories, he averaged 104 yards. In the six defeats, he averaged 37.5.
Losing that factor for a while would dampen this victory, and put more pressure back on Stafford and the defense. Can they handle it again? The Lions may be forced to find out.