'Game of inches:' Reversal foils Lions' comeback

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate falls into the end zone for what was called a 1-yard touchdown reception. The call was reversed on replay and the Lions lost the game.

Detroit — The chants of “MVP, MVP,” rained from the rafters after it appeared Matthew Stafford had led another improbable comeback. But a review of the game-winning touchdown, and the resulting 10-second runoff, made the Detroit Lions’ hard-luck losers Sunday, 30-26, at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons.

Down four with 2:23 remaining, Stafford steered the Lions nearly the length the field to the Falcons' 1-yard line, with a fresh set of downs and 19 seconds remaining. First down and second down were a pair of incomplete passes, but on third down, the quarterback found Golden Tate on a slant with eight ticks remaining for what appeared to be the winning score.

But an automatic review of scoring plays showed Tate’s knee down short of the end zone, and a mandatory runoff, since the Lions had no timeouts remaining, abruptly ended the game, infuriating the home crowd.

“Obviously, I wish I would’ve thrown it a foot higher, maybe help GT stay up,” Stafford said. “It’s a game of inches.”

As for the ruling, another quirky one in an unending string that have seemed to cost the Lions, coach Jim Caldwell took no issue with its application.

“They ruled it correctly, and that’s the way it is,” Caldwell said. “There were a lot of things I think we could’ve done better that we didn’t do well, so we’ve got to pick up the pieces.”

Both teams entered the day short-handed, but the Lions (2-1) had bigger issues overcoming their missing starters, particularly on defense.

The Atlanta offense, one of the league’s best, moved the ball with ease much of the afternoon, especially on the ground. Taking advantage of the absence of linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Tavon Wilson, two of the Detroit’s best run stoppers, Atlanta (3-0) churned out 151 yards on the ground, including 106 yards on 21 carries from starter Devonta Freeman.

BOX SCORE: Falcons 30, Lions 26

“We just didn’t do as good a job that we’ve been doing up front,” Caldwell said. “Any time that they run for over 150 yards against you, obviously, you’re not doing a very good job.”

The Lions, who often looked outclassed by the defending NFC champion, managed to hang around long enough to have a chance to steal the win thanks to three interceptions — two the result of dropped passes — and a game-ball-deserving effort from kicker Matt Prater, who made all four of his field-goal attempts, including one from 55 yards and another from 57.

The Falcons flexed their offensive muscle from the start, taking the opening kickoff 75 yards in 12 plays, capped by a four-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. The Lions got the Falcons in a pair of third-and-long situations, including a third-and-16 following a Jeremiah Valoaga sack, but couldn’t come up with the necessary stop.

Atlanta extended the early advantage to 10 with a 36-yard Matt Bryant field goal. The red-zone trip was derailed when Detroit defensive end Anthony Zettel dropped Ryan for a sack on third down.

Prater’s 55-yard field goal briefly cut the deficit to seven, but the Falcons marched right back down the field for a second touchdown. Jump-started by a 38-yard kickoff return from former Lion Andre Roberts, the Falcons turned to Freeman, who sliced easily through the Lions' line, rushing four straight times to cap the scoring series.

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The Lions got another Prater field goal on the ensuing possession, this one from 40 yards out, exchanging a jab after absorbing a clean uppercut.

The Lions landed their first big blow of the matchup on the Falcons’ next play, when safety Glover Quin jumped in front of a pass intended for Julio Jones and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. It was the veteran’s second interception of the season and second touchdown of his career.

“Yeah, I saw it and when I saw the pre-snap, I kind of alerted (Darius) Slay that I was coming,” Quin said “They snapped the ball and I kind of saw it clearly, so I just went. Trusted my preparation, tried to rely on communication and then just went.”

The Falcons got three points back before the half, a 48-yard field goal by Bryant, making it 20-13 at the break.

The second half didn’t start off well for the Lions, who quickly went three-and-out and surrendered another field goal, this one from 40 yards. But the offense got back on track during the second series in the third quarter.

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Leaning heavily on his running backs, Stafford connected on all six of his throws and Ameer Abdullah accounted for 30 yards as the Lions marched 75 yards.  Tate caught a crossing pass inside the five and worked his way into the end zone to get the Lions back within three, 23-20.

Detroit quickly got the ball back when Ryan attempted a shovel pass to running back Tevin Coleman, only to see it bounce off his hands into the waiting arms of Slay. That turnover turned into a 35-yard Prater field goal, knotting the game up with 1:28 remaining in the third quarter.

The Falcons responded by going back to their bread-and-butter, Freeman. He opened the possession with three carries, gaining 35 yards. That perfectly set up a play-action wide receiver screen to speedy Taylor Gabriel, who outraced the Lions defense for a 40-yard touchdown, putting the Falcons back up seven.

The Lions jabbed again with another Prater field goal, this one from 57 yards out with 11:48 remaining. It was the 11th make of his career from 55 yards and beyond, second only to longtime Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski.

That ended up being the game’s final score. The teams traded punts, and the Lions got another Slay interception in the fourth quarter, off a second dropped pass by the Falcons, this one from Sanu.

Stafford finished 25-of-45 passing for 264 yards. The Lions rushed for 71 yards, led by Abdullah's 47 on 14 carries.

The Lions head on the road next week to face division rival Minnesota Vikings.