London — The Atlanta Falcons began to celebrate Sunday when Lions kicker Matt Prater missed a 43-yard field goal. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive end Jason Jones and many of the 83,532 people in attendance at Wembley Stadium thought the game was over, too.
Instead, a flag hit the ground before Prater's kick went wide right, and with a delay of game call, the Lions' third field-goal kicker of the year had another chance.
On the second try, Prater made a 48-yarder that gave the Lions (6-2) a 22-21 victory, becoming the first team to overcome a 21-point deficit against the Falcons (2-6).
"That's about as high and as low and as high again as I've been on a football field," Stafford said.
How fitting, too, that the game came down to a kick in one of the world's most historic soccer stadiums.
"I'm sure he's about to become a household name," punter and holder Sam Martin said of Prater, who hit all three field-goal attempts in the game.
Prater's two kicks on the final play perfectly encapsulated the Lions' emotional rollercoaster because even when things went their way, there was plenty of doubt.
The win also continues what's been a charmed season for the Lions, who last week overcame a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the New Orleans Saints.
In the first half, the game appeared over as the Falcons scored on their first two drives and had a 21-0 lead at halftime. In the second half, the Lions steadily mounted their comeback, but the feeling after some missed opportunities resembled Stafford's intial thoughts on the critical delay-of-game call, which he said was the best such penalty "in the history of the world."
"I thought it was a 10-second runoff. I didn't know. I was like, awesome," he said.
Instead of the clock running out, the Lions had one last chance, and Prater's kick ensured the stellar second-half performances by Stafford, Golden Tate, Theo Riddick and the entire defense weren't for naught.
"You should never miss twice in a row," Prater said.
The Lions hadn't scored more than 21 points in a half in 2014, and with Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and their top three tight ends sidelined — not to mention the ease with which the Falcons' offense operated — the 21-0 lead seemed insurmountable. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, one of the Lions' top defensive players, was also out for the second half after suffering a knee injury.
But the Lions' defense held the Falcons to just 80 yards in the final 30 minutes, and the offense finally started to move the ball after gaining just 103 yards in the first half.
Stafford was 24-for-47 for 325 yards, two touchdowns and interception — the turnover in the first half, of course. Tate had seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown and Riddick caught eight passes for 74 yards and a touchdown.
Ryan finished 20 of 27 for 228 yards, two touchdowns and one second-half interception.
On the game-winning drive, the Lions gained 32 yards on a pass to Tate, 20 on one to Riddick and 10 on one to Jeremy Ross to reach field-goal range. The Lions also benefited from a holding penalty against the Falcons that pushed them to the Atlanta 25, helping them move closer after a third-down run with 24 seconds left that was a sign of the Lions settling for a long field goal.
Falcons coach Mike Smith called a time out before that play, too, despite the Lions having no way of stopping the clock.
"We didn't make the plays that we needed to make in the second half," Smith said.
The start of the game was a surprise based on the first seven weeks of the season. The Lions had won four of their last five games, and the Falcons entered on a four-game losing streak.
The first half was easily the worst 30-minute stretch the Lions have played in 2014. Through the first seven games, the Lions allowed just 15 points per game, second in the NFL while Atlanta allowed 28.4, ranking 30th.
"Actually, we felt kind of embarrassed," Jones said. "We knew in the second half we had to fight. We didn't even look at the score. We just had to fight; every play, we fight."
Atlanta drove 80 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening drive, capping by a 7-yard pass from quarterback Matt Ryan to running back Devonta Freeman.
The Lions' first drive stalled after four plays, and the Falcons marched right down the field again, scoring on a 1-yard pass from Ryan to tight end Bear Pascoe to take a 14-0 lead with 2:53 left in the first quarter
A few drives later, the Falcons went back to carving up the Lions defense with an 89-yard drive. Running back Steven Jackson became the 19th running back in NFL history to eclipse 11,000 rushing yards on the drive, and two plays later, he scored on a 1-yard run.
On the ensuing drive, the Lions moved to the Atlanta 35, but the drive ended with Robert Alford intercepting Stafford on a pass intended for Corey Fuller.
At halftime, the Falcons had out-gained the Lions 211 to 103. Ryan was nearly perfect, going 14 of 17 for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Stafford was consistently inaccurate, completing just 9 of 20 passes for 85 yards and the pick.
The tide turned quickly for the Lions in the second half. They settled for a 22-yard field goal from Prater to start the third quarter, but the score clearly provided a lift.
On the Lions' next drive, on a third-and-25, Stafford hit Tate with a laser for a 59-yard touchdown. The pass was the 119th touchdown of Stafford's career, breaking Bobby Layne's franchise record.
Atlanta's third-quarter implosion continued on the next drive as Ryan threw a pass with only Lions cornerback Cassius Vaughn in the area, and he returned the interception 45 yards to the Atlanta 7.
The Lions couldn't score a touchdown, though, as Stafford missed Tate on a slant on third-and-goal at the 2.
"I thought that was it," he said. "We can't miss an opportunity like that. It was a great check and a great route. That was the worst throw I've ever had."
A 20-yard Prater field goal made it 21-13 with 14:10 left in the fourth quarter.
After forcing a punt on Atlanta's next possession, the Lions scored on a 5-yard pass from Stafford to Riddick, cutting it to 21-19 with 3:56 remaining. But Stafford and Tate couldn't connect on the two-point conversion, another potentially devastating miscue.
Even though the Falcons gained two first downs, they couldn't run out the clock on their next possession. After a drop by Julio Jones, Atlanta had to punt, giving the Lions the ball with 1:38 remaining and no timeouts.
"The name of the game in this business is wins, scoring points and winning," Stafford said. "And this team believes in each other no matter who's out there, who's not out there and that's fun to be around."