Lions' playoff drive hits snag in loss to Giants
East Rutherford, N.J. — Sometimes, it just comes down to the way the ball bounces.
The Detroit Lions and New York Giants played a predictably ugly game, given the conditions and the way the two teams match up, but the 17-6 Giants’ win was decided by two fumbles that bounced in the victor’s favor.
Lions running back Zach Zenner coughed the ball up just short of the goal line in the second quarter, and it was recovered by the Giants in the end zone. And when Giants running back Shane Vereen did the same thing on the ensuing possession, two Lions defenders failed to pounce on the loose ball, leading to a drive that ended in a field goal.
The Packers (8-6) defeated the Bears 30-27 on Sunday so the Lions' (9-5) lead in the NFC North was cut to one game.
The game was expected to be a low-scoring affair, but the Giants sought to buck that narrative early, taking the opening kickoff and driving 75 yards on 10 plays.
The Giants’ typically anemic ground game gashed the Lions, with Vereen and Paul Perkins combining for 32 yards on six carries.
“I thought we pounded it in there pretty good,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said.
Quarterback Eli Manning completed all four of his throws during the opening possession, part of an 11 of 11 start. He found rookie receiver Sterling Shepard on a corner route out of the slot for a six-yard touchdown to put the Giants up, 7-0.
The teams traded punts before the Lions got on the board. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who came into the game nursing an injured middle finger on his throwing hand, had Golden Tate open down the sideline, but put too much air under the throw, allowing cornerback Eli Apple to recover enough to make a diving breakup.
Tight end Eric Ebron dropped a sliding effort on third down to extend the possession and the Lions settled for a 48-yard Matt Prater field goal, trimming the Giants’ early lead, 7-3.
Stafford finished the game 24-of-39 for 273 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. The finger proved not to be a significant issue.
“No, I felt pretty good,” he said.
After Detroit’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, Stafford made up for the earlier miss to Tate by hitting the receiver for a 67-yard bomb down the right sideline. On the next play, Zenner burst through the line and appeared destined for the end zone as Stafford threw his arms up in celebration, but a shot by cornerback Leon Hall dislodged the ball. It was recovered by defensive end Olivier Vernon in the end zone, giving New York the ball at their 20.
“I thought I had a good grip on it and then the worst feeling in the world happened next, when the ball is loose,” Zenner said.
The Giants (10-4) marched down the field, and appeared to have a touchdown when Vereen took a screen pass and weaved past several Lions defenders toward the end zone. But just short of the goal line, safety Glover Quin ripped the ball loose. The ball bounded free as defensive backs Rafael Bush and Asa Jackson whiffed on opportunities to recover the fumble. Victor Cruz fell on it, but the would-be touchdown was wiped out by a penalty near the line of scrimmage.
“We had an opportunity to corral it, but weren’t quite able to bring it in,” Caldwell said.
The Giants ultimately settled for a field goal, the final points of the first half, extending their lead to 10-3.
The Lions also lost cornerback Darius Slay to a hamstring injury on the drive.
Taking the ball to start the second half, the Lions drove back into the red zone, converting a trio of third downs along the way. But momentum again stalled inside the 20. On third-and-9, Stafford was dropped for a sack, leaving the Lions to settle for a 33-yard Prater field goal.
For the next quarter, the game turned into a field position battle, which the Giants dominated, pinning the Lions inside their own 5-yard line on back-to-back possessions.
“We had a good day on the punt team,” McAdoo said. “We were doing a nice job outside, getting down, covering those things and downing the ball inside the 10.”
New York put the game away with an eight-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Star receiver Odell Beckham, who had a relatively quiet day to that point, came up with two huge receptions. He hauled in a 25-yard catch from Manning to convert a third-and-10 early in the possession, then snagged a patented one-handed grab for an eight-yard touchdown.
“Just blessed, the fact that God gave me that ability,” Beckham said. “I practice it and it just kind of happened. It’s always an instinctual thing.”
The Lions had one final shot to make it interesting down the stretch. Taking the ball with just under four minutes remaining, Stafford steered the offense inside the Giants' 20, but was intercepted on a pass intended for Anquan Boldin in the end zone.