Niyo: Loss leaves Lions, Stafford limping into December

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The limp was severe as Matthew Stafford slowly made his way down the hallway, more than 45 minutes after he’d left the field. But he did what he could to hide it as he finally made his way to the podium for his postgame press conference.

Stafford then brushed off the first question about how he was feeling, choosing instead to answer, “Wish we would’ve won the game.”

But this one hurt, without question. And there was no denying that painful feeling for the Lions’ quarterback, who shouldered the blame on Thanksgiving as the Lions’ hopes for an elusive division title took a crippling blow.

Stafford’s sprained right ankle will have 10 days to heal before the Lions’ next game. But after Thursday's 30-23 loss to Minnesota, his team’s playoff prospects face a much tougher recovery. And as he left Ford Field, that thought probably was as hard to escape as the Vikings’ pass rush, his ankle bearing the weight of an offense that has trouble starting and often idles — or stalls — when it runs.

“We didn’t play well enough to win it,” Stafford said. “Left too many points out there. Missed a couple throws here and there that probably could’ve changed the game. Never fun to have that happen.”

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: O-line, secondary shaky in loss

And to have it happen on this national stage, and in this game — with the NFC North title perhaps hanging in the balance — only added to the frustration. There were plenty of places to throw the blame after this one, as another awful start doomed the Lions. But Stafford, who finished 20-of-35 for 250 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, didn’t sound interested in publicly passing the buck.

“It’s just me,” he said. “I’ve gotta hit ‘em.”

Yet even when he managed to do that Thursday, Stafford was reminded that nothing comes easily for this team, or this franchise. Not even in this treasured traditional holiday game in their own backyard.

Getting rolled

Take that free play early in the fourth quarter, as Stafford and the Lions caught the Vikings with 12 defenders on the field and looked for all the world like they were poised to catch the Vikings with another fourth-quarter comeback.

Stafford was fresh off a sack that left the Lions facing third-and-14 from the Minnesota 43. But he saw a chance to take a deep shot as the penalty flags flew, and he took it. As he did, though, Corey Robinson, a backup lineman who was in the game because center Travis Swanson was injured earlier, took down the Vikings’ Tom Johnson just as Stafford released the ball. And it was Johnson who ended up rolling up on the back of Stafford’s leg, bending his foot awkwardly beneath him and leaving Stafford writhing on the turf in pain.

Marvin Jones Jr.’s remarkable sideline grab over two defenders had the crowd on its feet celebrating a 43-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 27-23, and most of Stafford’s teammates were doing the same. Only left tackle Taylor Decker noticed that his quarterback was down at first, as the Lions’ medical staff came running onto the field. But once Jones realized it, too, “I didn’t care about the catch. I immediately ran over to him.”

Eventually, Stafford managed to limp to the sideline, where a trainer did a quick spat job, wrapping the ankle for support.

“He’s a warrior,” said Jones, who had another big day with six catches for 109 yards and two scores. “You already know that. He’s been through a lot in terms of what his body goes through, and time after time he gets in there, gathers himself and does what he does. You have to prop him for that. I wouldn’t play with anybody else.”

He probably won’t anytime soon. The Lions’ franchise quarterback hasn’t missed a snap since October 2015, and he wouldn’t miss any Thursday, either.

But the missed opportunities? Those are another story, and in the end, they were the story of this game.

Sometimes, it’s the little things. And even after the Lions were finished playing possum — again — that was the case here.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Stafford hit Golden Tate beyond the chains on third-and-3 only to watch as Tate ran himself out of a first down trying to pick up extra yardage. The Lions were forced to punt. And then on the ensuing possession, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs with a short throw on third-and-7 and watched as Diggs lunged and extended the football to get the first down by the length of a football.

“It was a matter of inches,” Tate said of Thursday’s end result. “Very, very close. But close gets you nowhere here.”

Missed opportunities

The Lions know they’re still somewhere in the playoff hunt with five weeks to play and the NFC wild-card picture a bit muddy. But just as they’ll have plenty of time to heal before heading on the road to face Baltimore, they’ll also have time to lament the plays they threw away Thursday.

Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions’ offensive coordinator, dialed up a perfect screen call early in the second quarter, but Stafford’s quick toss to beat the blitz was off target. And it felt as if the entire stadium groaned, because Theo Riddick, the intended receiver, had no one between himself and the end zone. The Lions were forced to settle for a field goal that cut the deficit to 13-3 at that point.

More: Rogers: Marvin Jones' play rises above lowly Lions' loss

Contrast that with the Vikings’ play late in the fourth quarter, as coordinator Pat Shurmur made a similar call to beat the Lions’ blitz, and then watched as Keenum hit Diggs, who raced 37 yards untouched after left guard Nick Easton obliterated Miles Killebrew with a cut block. That set up the Vikings’ late field goal for the game’s final margin.

Even then, the Lions weren’t done, though. Not until Stafford airmailed a pass to Tate, who was running free down the seam on third-and-7, the kind of throw that Stafford has rarely missed this season. Maybe the bum ankle played a role in that, though Stafford shrugged off that question, too.

“It wasn’t just that one,” Stafford added. “There were a couple throughout the day where we ended up getting threes that could’ve been sevens. And if they’re sevens we’re sitting in a better place at the end of the game.”

He was standing as he said that. But it was easy to see how uncomfortable it made him feel.