Justin Rogers and John Niyo of The Detroit News break down the Lions' 17-3 victory over the Cardinals, snapping a 25-year drought without a win in the state of Arizona. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Glendale, Ariz. — The only thing moving with any regularity Sunday at the Lions-Cardinals game was the injury cart.
Back and forth it went during the first half of Detroit’s 17-3 victory over Arizona, shuttling from the bench on the visitors’ sideline to the locker room. Once. Twice. Three times in all, as the toll of a dangerous game near the end of a long-since-lost season played out with painful monotony in the desert.
Two plays after rookie Da’Shawn Hand limped off with a significant right knee injury in the first quarter, Ziggy Ansah lay writhing in pain in nearly the same spot on the field. And by the time the cart had returned from shuttling Hand up the tunnel, it was time for Ansah to climb aboard, clearly in agony with a towel draped over his head — his once-dislocated right shoulder apparently injured again.
No fewer than a dozen Lions players left with injuries over the course of the game, and two-thirds of those didn’t return. Rick Wagner, the starting right tackle, left on a cart with a concussion in the second quarter. Nick Bellore hobbled to the locker room after aggravating an ankle injury. Receiver Bruce Ellington and special-teams ace Charles Washington were lost to hamstring injuries. On and on it went, and by the time the game was mercifully over, the body count was so high that head coach Matt Patricia didn’t even want to begin to address it in his postgame press conference.
And as the team headed for the airport for a long flight home, quarterback Matthew Stafford, who came in with a bad back, already knew what to expect Monday in the training room back at the Lions’ practice facility in Allen Park.
“I’m gonna have to wedge in there for a little bit and find my spot,” Stafford said. “It’s gonna be crowded in there.
“It’s tough. But I was proud of our guys, man. They were battling. I know everybody’s fighting tooth and nail to get out there and help us win. And I was happy to see that. Obviously not happy to see those guys go down. Guys put a lot of hard work into this game, a lot of practice — a lot of time in the offseason — to get ready to play 16 (games), and when you can’t, I know it’s tough.”
And it’s even tougher at this point, when the playoff hopes are mostly extinguished — though still mathematically alive thanks to Sunday’s results — and the NFL master schedule plays games like this, pitting two beaten-down teams on a beat-up field that wasn’t even suitable for the youth flag-football squads playing at halftime.
As Ricky Jean Francois, the Lions’ veteran defensive tackle said, afterward, “You pay too much money for a stadium like this to have grass that bad.”
Then again, NFL fans pay too much money for games like this, too, as neither team scored an offensive touchdown for 55 minutes. The Cardinals’ fans understandably booed the home team off the field at halftime. But the thousands of Lions fans who showed up — the “Red Sea” was full of Honolulu Blue — probably felt like joining them after a first half that featured eight punts, five penalties, four fumbles and three points.
The over-under for the game was 40.5 points, but that felt more like a taunt than a temptation even before kickoff.
The Cardinals (3-10) crossed midfield twice in the first three quarters, and they came away empty both times. Zane Gonzalez clanged a 54-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright — the Lions’ voodoo still travels, it seems — and then Darius Slay jumped a sideline route and returned a Josh Rosen pass 67 yards for a touchdown with 3:03 left in the third.
A week ago, Taylor Decker scored the Lions’ lone touchdown on a tackle-eligible screen in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams. And Sunday, with the Lions’ skill-position numbers dwindling again on offense, Slay was the only one to find the end zone until Zach Zenner plowed in with 4:05 to play, capping an impressive drive that put the game away.
Can’t win for losing
Really, though, this was a game that was put away weeks ago — rendered irrelevant in the NFC playoff chase — and that speaks to a larger issue for the Lions, who effectively lost by winning, falling five spots in the projected 2019 draft order by improving to 5-8 on the season.
The Lions were relevant nationally when they embarrassed themselves in the season opener, giving a rookie quarterback a debut win for the New York Jets. They were relevant again a couple weeks later, mostly because a win over the Patriots left pundits wondering if a dynasty was finally crumbling. And they were relevant once more, perhaps, when the Chicago Bears defense feasted on Thanksgiving leftovers.
But Sunday, the Lions and Cardinals played a game that hardly registered across the league, meriting only a passing mention on the hours-long network pregame shows and even then largely in jest.
The Cardinals came in ranked last in the NFL in scoring with a rookie quarterback playing behind an offensive line that started three rookies to boot. Rosen hadn’t thrown for 200 yards in a game since mid-November, and only managed to pass that mark in this game with a few late completions on a meaningless last-minute drive.
Stafford, meanwhile, finished his day with just 101 passing yards, the lowest total of his career aside from that 2010 season opener in Chicago where he suffered a separated shoulder in the first quarter. And in order to put the game away, it’s interesting that Patricia and his staff opted to the put the ball in the hands of Zenner, who accounted for all of the non-penalty yardage in Lions’ final four-minute drive.
“We just had to find a way to win,” Patricia said, “and that’s what we needed.”
And if this game — or this win — left you wanting more? Well, tough.
“It’s the NFL — a win is a win,” Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “From a fan aspect, I’m pretty sure they wanna see points. But there’s only two teams that put 40 points or more every week. And you’re looking at the wrong teams if you’re expecting that.”
But you knew that already, right?