Lions hold on to snap skid as Panthers' gamble backfires

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Riverboat Ron pushed all in with a gutsy call and busted.

The Carolina Panthers coach, known for his aggressive play-calling, opted to go for the win instead of the tie, attempting a 2-point conversion in the closing minutes of Sunday’s game with the Lions. But Cam Newton, who had plenty of time to survey the scene, threw a pass that fell incomplete, giving Detroit a much-needed 20-19 victory at Ford Field.

Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay hauls in the eventual winning touchdown catch in front of Panthers cornerback James Bradberry late in the fourth quarter Sunday in Detroit.

"I think you go for two on the road to win," Rivera said. "That’s what I did at the end of the day. What’s to say the coin toss is going to go in our favor? What’s to tell you we’re going to stop them? So, why not go for two?"

Newton gave the Panthers their final shot at victory, leading a six-play 75-yard scoring drive in just 1:37. Newton found DJ Moore for 8-yard touchdown pass before the failed 2-point attempt.

The game started out looking like a shootout.

The Panthers (6-4), taking the opening kickoff, carved through Detroit’s secondary. Newton completed his first four passes for 79 yards, headlined by a 29-yarder to rookie D.J. Moore, who ran through the tackle attempt of cornerback Mike Ford, making the surprise start in his debut. That set up a floating play-action pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen for a 1-yard touchdown.

The Lions (4-6) responded with a touchdown drive of their own, leaning heavily on the legs of rookie rusher Kerryon Johnson, who churned out 42 yards on six carries. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay helped avert disaster, ripping an interceptable pass out of the hands of cornerback James Bradberry, allowing Johnson to cap the drive with an 8-yard scoring run around the left edge.

BOX SCORE: Lions 20, Panthers 19

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Performance vs. Carolina worthy of honor roll

But what looked like it might be a scoring bonanza, slowed to a defensive struggle.

The Lions defense shut Carolina down the remainder of the first half, limiting the Panthers to 37 yards on the team’s next four possessions. Detroit’s pass rush, after recording two sacks the previous two weeks, sacked Newton twice on third down during the stretch, forcing a pair of punts.

"I would just say credit to our players for mentally pushing through, trying to have some toughness to stay in there and try to handle some of the adjustments that we made and then go out and execute them," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "Sometimes you make adjustments that you necessarily don’t get to practice, or you haven’t run in a couple weeks, or whatever it is, but it’s important for that game. You know, that’s the ability of what we’re looking for is to be able to kind of go from the pool of stuff that we have and use it and apply it when you need it most."

The Lions offense was equally sluggish during the stretch until Johnson gained 30 yards from scrimmage with three carries and a reception, setting up a 54-yard Matt Prater field goal in the closing minute of the half, giving the Lions their first lead, 10-7.

Detroit had an opportunity to add more points before the break, but couldn’t capitalize on rookie Tracy Walker’s first career interception, going three-and-out and punting the ball away as time ran out.

Johnson continued to shine to open the second half, breaking free for a 24-yard pickup to open the second half, but the Lions opted to punt when facing a 4th-and-2 at the Panthers 43-yard line.

On the ensuing possession, two broken tackles in the secondary allowed Moore to race for an 82-yard gain down to the Detroit 12, before he was caught from behind by cornerback Darius Slay. 

"That’s a huge play, that’s a great effort play," Patricia said. "You know, I mean great hustle, great pursuit, that’s a really fast guy that he’s chasing. Fortunately, we’ve got a faster guy for that moment."

With new life, the Lions defense came up with another third-down sack, this time linebacker Jarrad Davis, forcing for the Panthers to settle for a 34-yard field goal attempt.

And in déjà vu from a week ago, Carolina kicker Graham Gano’s effort was rejected by the left upright, leaving the Lions up three.

Detroit extended the advantage to six, taking advantage of sloppy tackling by Carolina’s secondary, utilized the quick-passing game to march into the red zone before stalling out. Prater knocked it home from 32 yards, making it 13-6.

Unfortunately for the Lions, Johnson was lost to a left knee injury on the drive. He finished his day with 87 yards on 15 carries.

After briefly knocking Newton out of the game, the Carolina quarterback returned to start the fourth quarter and steered the Panthers back to the end zone for the first time since the game’s opening possession. The former MVP completed 7-of-8 passes on the drive, for 74 yards, connecting with Curtis Samuel for a 12-yard touchdown over cornerback Teez Tabor.

More: Rod Wood: Lions ‘have a great head coach’ in Matt Patricia

But again, kicker woes benefited the Lions as Gano missed the extra point, leaving the game tied at 13 with 9:23 remaining.

And much like the Lions did in the opening quarter, they responded to the Panthers' touchdown with one of their own. Golladay came up with two huge third-down grabs on the drive, first beating Bradberry deep for 36 yards on a double move as quarterback Matthew Stafford scrambled from his pocket to avoid pressure to convert a 3rd-and-15.

Three plays later, Golladay laid out to snag a 19-yard touchdown, his fifth of the season. Prater’s extra point put the Lions up seven with 5:19 to go.

"He just gave me a nice, pretty, high ball," Golladay said. "I like balls like that, for me to just use my size, hands, athletic ability to go up there and make the catch and that’s what I did."

The two teams traded punts, setting up Newton for the tying drive. 

But instead of settling for the tie, the Panthers went for two after a timeout. Newton had time, but his throw to Jarius Wright was wide.

"Got to make the play," Newton said. "I’ve got to make that play. That’s what it comes down to. Jarius did a good job with kind of improvising, I just got to make the play."

Lions running back Zach Zenner recovered the onside kick, sealing Detroit’s first victory in a month. The Lions will have a quick turnaround with the holiday weekend and will host the NFC North Chicago Bears this Thursday for the annual Thanksgiving Day game.

Twitter: @justin_rogers