The Lions' playoff pulse continues to faintly beat after sneaking by the Bucs in a turnover-filled game.
Tampa, Fla. — Matthew Stafford called an audible and cut loose another pass toward the sideline, his 42nd of the afternoon. The game was tied, and the Lions’ playoff hopes — or what’s left of them — were hanging in the balance, right up there with questions about their head coach’s job security.
The pass, on third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 42-yard line with less than a minute to play in regulation, was intended for Kenny Golladay, who leaped and got both hands on the football. But the rookie also had cornerback Ryan Smith draped over his shoulder, pawing at his helmet trying to break up the pass. Golladay lost the handle, tipped it once, tipped it again, then tried desperately to cradle it with one arm as he fell to the ground.
“I think he ended up catching it with his legs or something like that,” Stafford said later, shaking his head in admiration. “Man, it was a great catch. Huge play in the game.”
Just how big, we may not know for a few more weeks. For now, all we know is it helped set up Matt Prater’s game-winning kick, which kept the Lions mathematically alive in the NFC playoff chase.
But it felt more like a stay of execution, didn’t it? After the Lions blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against the bickering Buccaneers — a 4-9 team that’s headed nowhere — and needed Prater’s 46-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to win a game in which they forced five turnovers. And especially after Sunday morning’s NFL Network report cast more doubt on Caldwell’s future, not that we needed any.
Caldwell wasn’t interested in addressing the report that his “multiyear” contract extension signed in the offseason — but not announced until late September — is only guaranteed through 2018, putting him squarely on the hot seat again if his team fails to make the playoffs.
“You know, we've never, never, never, ever, ever been in the practice of talking about contracts or anything of that nature,” he said after the Lions’ 24-21 victory. “Certainly not going to start today.”
But the speculation won’t end anytime soon — neither general manager Bob Quinn nor president Rod Wood commented Sunday — nor should it, frankly.
They all know what’s at stake here in the final month, as the Lions, to borrow a line from the Supremes, just keep us all hangin’ on. It’s the same old song, I know, but they keep adding verses.
“Listen, man, we go play, and he goes and coaches,” Stafford said, shrugging off the Caldwell questions Sunday. “He understands its part of the business. We understand it. … Our job is to win football games. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
And by any means necessary, at this point.
The Lions still can’t run the football, but they’ve at least abandoned most of the pretense, only bothering with 18 handoffs Sunday in a game in which they never trailed. Still, they managed to bungle another third-and-1 try early and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry while effectively benching starter Ameer Abdullah by leaving him inactive for this one.
Stafford, meanwhile, wasn’t sacked for the first time all season. But the Bucs came in with a league-worst 17 sacks and lost Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy to a torn biceps early in the second quarter. And it was hardly a clean sheet, as four of the Lions five starters on a banged-up offensive line drew holding penalties — a false-start penalty on the winning drive as well — while the Lions were flagged eight times for 105 yards in all.
The defense finally came up with a handful of turnovers Sunday — “We had to get back to that,” said cornerback Darius Slay, who’s playing like a Pro Bowler himself this season — but Stafford threw two of them right back, leaving critical points on the field at the end of the first half.
“Those are just poor decisions that’ll piss me off here for a little bit,” said Stafford, who completed his first 12 passes and finished 36-of-44 for 381 yards. “But the rest of the game, our guys did a great job of making plays.”
Eric Ebron among them — a first-quarter fumble notwithstanding — as he posted career-best numbers with 10 catches for 94 yards Sunday. Golden Tate and Theo Riddick also played starring roles, combining for 178 yards and all three touchdowns.
Defensively, Slay and the rest of the secondary were the primary reason the Lions came away with a victory. But it was Ezekiel Ansah who put the finishing touches on this one, ripping Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston down for a sack to drain the final seconds on the clock.
At that point, the Lions’ reaction was “just a sigh of relief,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said, “and ‘Let’s get out of here, man.’”
Golladay felt much the same way in the postgame locker room, packing his bag to head to the bus and a flight home to Detroit. And when asked to describe that late catch, the one he managed to hang on to when his team desperately needed it, he didn’t have much to say.
“I was just out there playing, to be honest,” the rookie said. “I’ll probably look back at the tape and be, like, ‘Damn.’”
But for now, the Lions still have something to look forward to, with the Bears coming to town Saturday at Ford Field. And something to play for, too — the postseason, the head coach, and so on — even if it all seems like quite a reach.