Detroit — Late in the first quarter of the Lions' 24-12 loss at Ford Field, Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby made a full-extension dive to make an interception, the first of three turnovers by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Roby was covering wide receiver Lance Moore, but early in the play, he started running toward the already-covered Golden Tate. After the game, Stafford said the Lions hadn't run that play before, so he didn't think it was a sign of predictability.
In a game in which the Lions gained just 225 yards before a desperate final drive, there were plenty of other signs that the Broncos' defense knew what was coming.
"We pretty much knew what they were going to do, and they did it," Roby said.
For much of the first half, the Lions defense showcased the bend-but-don't-break approach needed to beat a legendary quarterback like Peyton Manning.
Eventually, though, Manning found mismatches in the Lions defense, and the turnovers and ill-timed penalties proved too costly as the Lions lost to the Broncos in front of 62,920 people at the home opener in Detroit.
For the first time since 2010, the Lions fell to 0-3, and with a trip to Seattle next week and a home game against the 3-0 Cardinals in Week 5, they have to make several corrections to prevent this season from quickly spiraling out of control.
"I think collectively as a group, man, we're not playing with enough confidence right now," said linebacker DeAndre Levy, who missed his third straight game. "It seems like we're kind of unsure of what we want to do at times in the game. Obviously, we have good stretches, but we haven't put a full game together yet."
This was also the first time the Lions lost in their Ford Field debut since 2010, and with the game on NBC's "Sunday Night Football," the Lions fell to just 2-8 in primetime games since 2011.
Although there were some mishaps by the offensive line, Stafford was far too inconsistent once again, finishing 31-of-45 for 282 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble in the fourth quarter when the Lions were in Denver territory, though he and coach Jim Caldwell thought he was throwing the ball forward before the fumble.
The Lions' non-existent run game didn't show any improvement as they finished with 19 carries for 28 yards. However, the Lions' run defense was much better than in Week 2 and held Denver to just 41 yards on 19 carries.
Regardless, Manning was precise enough to keep the Broncos in front for much of the game, finishing 31-of-42 for 324 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
"He's got the ability to break your back," Caldwell said of Manning.
Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (nine catches for 92 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (six for 87) consistently made plays for Denver.
For the Lions, wide receiver Calvin Johnson had eight catches for 77 yards, but just one play that stretched the field. Tight end Eric Ebron added four catches for 61 yards.
The issues that plagued the Lions in the first two games were apparent immediately Sunday. Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware sacked Stafford on the second snap of the game, setting up a third down the Lions couldn't convert. Ware sacked Stafford again on the second drive, helping lead to another Lions punt after just one first down.
Meanwhile, the Broncos offense struggled, too, so the Lions kept the game close. Neither team could run the ball at all in the first half as the Lions had 12 yards on 11 carries, though one of those was Stafford's kneel at the end of the second quarter. The Lions also held the Broncos to just 18 yards on 10 carries.
The best drive by either team in the first quarter was one by the Broncos that reached the Detroit 13. However, the Lions defense made a magnificent stand as, on the first play of the second quarter, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata tipped a pass and safety Glover Quin made a diving interception, his second of the season.
Finally, the scoring started with 4:54 left in the second quarter as Denver running back Ronnie Hillman punched in a 1-yard run. A 26-yard reception by tight end Virgil Green set up the score as two Lions players hit him but not completely to the ground, and he ran to the 2-yard line.
Trailing 7-0, the Lions offense started to show some urgency as Stafford led a textbook 4-minute drive. A 25-yard contested catch by Johnson started the drive, a roughing-the-passer penalty on Von Miller gave the Lions 15 free yards and a diving 11-yard catch by Johnson along the sideline moved them inside the red zone.
A 16-yard catch by running back Theo Riddick pushed the Lions to goal-to-go, and a few plays and a Denver penalty later, Joique Bell leaped over the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run.
However, cornerback Aqib Talib blocked the extra point, and cornerback Chris Harris might have returned it for 2 points if not for an excellent chase-down effort by Ebron.
With 1:03 left in the first half, the Lions trailed 7-6, but those 63 seconds apparently were more than enough for the Broncos to score again. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Detroit 45, Manning lofted a pass to Thomas, who made an excellent catch over cornerback Darius Slay then ran in for a touchdown with 5 seconds left. At the break, the Broncos led 14-6.
The Lions defense forced another turnover at the start of the third quarter. On the fourth play of the first second-half drive, Thomas fumbled after stretching for a first down, and rookie cornerback Quandre Diggs scooped it up and raced to the end zone.
An official ruled Thomas down, and even though Caldwell won a challenge to give the Lions the ball, Diggs' return was still rendered moot as they took over where he first possessed the ball.
With starting field position at the Denver 29, the Lions took advantage of a prime opportunity and eventually scored on a 16-yard pass from Stafford to Abdullah. Down 14-12, though, the Lions went for 2, but the shotgun handoff to Bell failed, leaving Detroit with that deficit with 10:51 left in the third quarter.
After that, though, both offenses returned to their struggling ways.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions started with the ball at their 45 following a 28-yard punt return by TJ Jones, who was making his NFL debut. On the third play of the drive, though, Stafford looked right and didn't see an open receiver. He then ran to his left and was hit as he tried to throw and fumbled.
Denver defensive end Malik Jackson recovered the ball at the Detroit 49, and a few plays later, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus made a 48-yard field goal to extend the lead to 17-12 with 7:50 left in regulation. Of course, McManus only made the field goal after an illegal formation on the Lions nullified his miss from 53 yards and gave him another try.
The Lions looked primed to answer the Broncos' score, and a 29-yard catch by Ebron over the middle moved them near midfield. On the ensuing third down, though, Stafford threw another interception as safety David Bruton tipped a ball intended for Johnson to himself and corralled it to give Denver the ball back with 3:37 remaining.
On the second play of the Broncos' drive, Manning lofted a pass to Sanders, who made a 34-yard contested catch over Slay. The long strike set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Manning to tight end Owen Daniels, which gave Denver a 24-12 lead with 2:28 remaining.
Now, the Lions face long odds as just three teams have made the postseason since 1990 after an 0-3 start.
"I don't care about all that stuff," Caldwell said, referencing the finish of previous 0-3 teams. "What I care about is trying to get better, and I thought we made a little headway. … I think there are going to be some things that we can take away that we can build upon in which we have to."