Cincinnati — The Detroit Lions have given their fans coal for Christmas.
With the Atlanta Falcons opening the door for a potential playoff berth to be clinched next week, the Lions fell short against a struggling and banged-up Bengals team on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, 26-17.
“We struggled today,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "That’s the fact of the matter. They did a better job controlling the line of scrimmage on us, they ran the ball well. You know, we had a couple sparks in there here and there, but we just were just not sharp one way shape or form."
The loss officially eliminates the Lions (8-7) from postseason contention and will make Caldwell’s job security the top story in town.
After the game, team president Rod Wood declined an interview request.
Both the Lions and Bengals (6-9) opened slowly, with the first five possessions ending in a punt, before the Lions were able to take advantage of good field position on their third series.
Starting near midfield, the Lions needed four plays to break the scoreless tie. Set up by a 14-yard screen pass to receiver Golden Tate, quarterback Matthew Stafford delivered a perfect deep pass down the right sideline to tight end Eric Ebron, who made the over-the-shoulder grab for a 33-yard touchdown.
Detroit had an opportunity to expand the early advantage when linebacker Jarrad Davis got pressure on a blitz, forcing a rushed throw by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton that was intercepted by safety Quandre Diggs, his third straight game with a pick.
But the Lions stalled at midfield and opted to punt when facing a fourth-and-1.
“You don’t get in that situation and, obviously, it turns into a different game where it doesn’t have to be at that particular point in time,” Caldwell said. “You have to weigh and measure those things out.”
Sparked by a 25-yard run by Gio Bernard to open the ensuing drive, the Bengals worked their way into the red zone before settling for a 29-yard Randy Bullock field goal.
After trading punts, the Lions again worked close to midfield. But on first-and-10, blitzing linebacker Vontaze Burfict bowled over running back Theo Riddick and got to Stafford. With Burfict draped all over him, Stafford attempted to force the throw and was intercepted by Vincent Rey.
Capitalizing on the turnover, the Bengals netted another 27-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, making it 7-6 at the break.
“It was a great job by Vontaze,” Rey said. “He came in on a blitz and won his rush on the back and was hitting the quarterback. He made him make an errant throw, and thankfully I was able to pull it in. The offense was able to turn it into three, so it was big.”
The Lions got the field goal back on the opening possession of the third quarter. After converting a pair of short third downs, Stafford connected with Marvin Jones for a 31-yard gain into the red zone. The reception put Jones over 1,000 yards on the season for the first time in his career.
After back-to-back runs made it third-and-2 from the 5-yard line, Stafford’s pass to Kenny Golladay in the end zone was batted away and kicker Matt Prater came in for the 23-yard chip shot.
“I just have to throw the ball in a better spot, and we have to come down with it,” Stafford said. “We have to find a way to score points, and that’s what it comes down to. He was about third or fourth in the progression, and their guy made a good play.”
The Bengals seized the lead, their first of the day, on the next possession. Fueled by a 25-yard pass interference call against cornerback Nevin Lawson, Dalton beat a Lions blitz with a 34-yard catch-and-run to running back Brian Hill in the flat.
With a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Detroit’s troubles defending play-action near the goal line cropped up again as Dalton found tight end C.J. Uzomah in the back of the end zone. The extra point put the Bengals up, 13-10.
"It was my first option, and he did a good job of getting across the field and getting open,” Dalton said.
After Prater came up short on a 50-yard field-goal try, the Bengals pushed their advantage to six with a 35-yard Bullock field goal early in the third quarter.
The Lions countered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to regain control. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Bengals' 46, the Lions set up to go for it, only to see guard Don Barclay false start. But on the punt, the Bengals ran into punter Sam Martin, giving back the five yards. With the renewed fourth-and-short opportunity, running back Tion Green converted with a 12-yard run up the middle behind a pulling block by Barclay.
Two plays later, Stafford dropped a precision pass to Ebron over a Bengals linebacker for a gain of 29, setting up a 5-yard touchdown run for Green.
But the Bengals refused to go down without a fight. Aided by two penalties against the Lions secondary, the Bengals worked into field-goal range and Bullock knocked home a 51-yarder with 4:47 remaining, putting the Bengals back up, 19-17.
Instead of punching back, the Lions went backward after Barclay was flagged for holding and a false start. Needing 28 yards on third down, Stafford heaved a desperation bomb to Tate, which nearly connected, but was ripped out of his hands by a pair of Bengals defenders as he went to the ground.
Replays showed Tate might have had possession of the ball. The Lions opted to conserve a timeout instead of challenging the ruling.
“From what our guys saw on the replay and those kinds of things, he had it, went down and didn’t complete the catch,” Caldwell said. “It bounced out. That was the ruling.”
Forced to punt, Martin’s boot went just 33 yards, giving the Bengals the ball back in Lions territory with 3:42 remaining. After a pair of first downs worked the clock down to the two-minute warning, the Bengals needed one more conversion to secure the win.
Coming out of the timeout, Bernard bounced outside on third-and-6 and broke free for a 12-yard touchdown to put the game away.
The Lions close the season next Sunday, at Ford Field, against the Packers.