Niyo: Stopgap victory eases pressure on Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It wasn’t the snow or the cold or the injuries or the coach. It was the losing,

That’s what really wears on an NFL player. And that’s what was starting to weigh so heavily on the Lions the last few weeks, as a .500 team started to go under and things started to go quiet.

Maybe not on the outside, where all the noise — the clamoring fans, the critical media, even some national ridicule — was building to an ugly crescendo.

But inside? Yeah, it was getting a bit uncomfortable.

Which is why Sunday’s 20-19 win over the Carolina Panthers mattered, no matter how it happened — gift-wrapped in the end by an opposing coach’s gamble — or what it cost, as rookie story Kerryon Johnson limped to the locker room with a knee injury. Or even what it'll ultimately mean for the Lions' record at the end of this season.

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“We needed it,” said Ricky Jean Francois, the Lions’ veteran defensive tackle. “We needed to get that taste out of our mouth. We needed that losing taste to leave us.”

Because as veterans like Francois know, the longer that taste lingers, the harder it is to ignore. And the easier it is to listen to what’s being said, or what’s not.

“At some point, you get to that breaking point,” Francois said.

And if the Lions weren’t there yet, it sounds like they were getting close.

“It was just bad walking around,” Francois said. “The facility’s quiet, people not enjoying themselves, you don’t see smiles or anything. … Guys were just tired of losing.”

Feisty cats

Tired, but not ready to quit. Weary, but not resigned to their fate. Or at least that’s the way it looked Sunday, even after the Panthers took the opening kickoff and marched 90 yards for a touchdown— the third consecutive week a Lions opponent has done that.

This time, the Lions responded with an efficient touchdown drive of their own — one that saw Johnson and Kenny Golladay touch the ball on nine of 12 plays. And from there, both teams made adjustments, settling in for the long haul.  

After getting sacked 16 times the last two weeks, the Lions made a concerted effort to keep their quarterback upright Sunday. And while the tradeoff was obvious on the stat sheet — Matthew Stafford’s 13 first-half completions produced just 64 yards as he got the ball out quickly — it did help limit the self-inflicted damage.

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The defense got some timely stops and even a few sacks — Ezekiel Ansah’s presence led directly to two of those — while the special-teams unit had easily it’s best game of the season. In 10 possessions, the Panthers’ best starting field position was their own 25, and four times they were pinned inside their own 10.

“We knew it would take all 60 minutes, which it did,” said Lions coach Matt Patricia, who didn't need any prepared statements Sunday. “And I’m proud of our guys for fighting all the way through it. I think it showed a lot of mental toughness all the way through.”

Take Golladay, for instance. With Golden Tate traded, and Marvin Jones now sidelined by a knee injury, the second-year pro knows he’s a marked man now for opposing defenses. (“Who else are they gonna look to?” he said.)

But despite all that, Golladay finished with eight catches for 113 yards, including a touchdown grab that proved to be the winner. He also had one of the blocks that helped spring Johnson for the Lions’ opening score.

“It’s gonna continue to get harder,” Patricia said. “But the one thing about Kenny is he  works. He’s gonna work to make himself the best player he can be.”

The same is true of Johnson, the rookie who was on his way to another 100-yard day before he landed awkwardly on his left knee at the end of a run where he turned nothing into something. He exited with 15 carries for 87 yards and no word about when he might return, though it seems likely he’ll miss at least Thursday’s rematch with the Bears and probably more.

Still, Sunday was a reminder that as bad as things seemed the last few weeks, there are some cornerstone pieces in place. And some resolve that binds them all together.

On the case

That’s something we saw even in one of the worst moments Sunday, as Cam Newton hit DJ Moore along the visitors’ sideline and then watched safety Glover Quin take a bad angle to spring the Panthers’ rookie wideout for what looked to be a 94-yard touchdown play. Except Darius Slay was among those giving chase, and he somehow tracked down Moore, making a diving tackle at the 12-yard line.

The defense then held, with Jarrad Davis sacking Newton on third down, and Carolina kicker Graham Gano clanked a 34-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright. The Lions then capped the ensuing drive with a Matt Prater kick to make it 13-7. 

“That’s a huge play, that’s a great effort play,” Patricia said of Slay’s pursuit. “We don’t want to quit. We want to keep going.”

So they did Sunday, in front of announced crowd of 61,999 that might’ve been the loudest all season at Ford Field, if you can believe it. It was an environment the players certainly appreciated after the last two weeks on the road facing division rivals.

But especially at the end, after the Panthers drove 75 yards in six plays to pull within 20-19 with 1:07 to play, and Rivera lived up to his “Riverboat Ron” moniker, leaving his offense on the field to attempt a two-point conversion.

Whether the Lions’ defense took it as an insult or a challenge, or both, here’s what they were thinking in the moment, while the fans had their back.

“They ain’t getting this (expletive),” Slay said. “Plain and simple.”

Asked if he was surprised by Rivera’s bold decision, one that Carolina’s coach didn’t reconsider even after calling a timeout, Patricia shrugged, “I’m never surprised by anything in an NFL game, to be honest with you.”

No, if anything, the surprise was that the game’s deciding play didn’t end with the quarterback attempting to run it in himself. Newton dropped back to pass, waited for a receiver to break open, then waited some more.

“In general, that’s usually not good against Cam Newton,” Patricia noted, smiling.

But just when he was ready to bolt, he saw Jarius Wright collide with linebacker Christian Jones, then flash back across the middle away from Nevin Lawson. So Newton quickly tossed it, jumping as he did and delivering an errant throw that sailed high and behind Wright, all but sealing the win for Detroit.

“This game is so humbling at times,” Newton said afterward. “Today I was humbled.”

These Lions know the feeling, obviously. Especially after the way they played the last few weeks, falling behind by double digits early and effectively burying their season with lopsided losses to a trio of NFC contenders.

But now they head into a short week of preparation for their traditional Thanksgiving game with another feeling altogether. It gets noisy around the holidays, sure. But to the Lions, that sounds just fine.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo