Niyo: Final drive to survive gives Lions’ season new life

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

Atlanta — The Lions know what the book on them says. They know what has been said — and, yes, what has been written — about both their fate and their failures.

But you don’t have to read between the lines to understand what the players were saying Sunday afternoon, after one the wildest wins you’ll ever see in the NFL. As far as they’re concerned, this is still a choose-your-own-adventure book.

And if you managed to follow all the unexpected plot twists and stomach-churning swings of emotion in the final chapter of the Lions’ 23-22 win over the Atlanta Falcons, you might’ve noticed that theme, too.

The season’s not over yet, despite what most of us thought. And as improbable as this win seemed in the waning moments, maybe that just evens the score for Lions, who flew home from Atlanta with a .500 record thanks to a parting gift from the Falcons.

Todd Gurley’s accidental touchdown with 64 seconds left on the clock — and the game all but clinched for Atlanta — proved to be a happy one for the Lions. So much so that Lions linebacker Jamie Collins even raised his arms in celebration as Gurley stumbled through a half-hearted tackle attempt by Will Harris and across the goal line.

Instead of taking a knee, and then running the clock down before kicking a chip-shot field goal to win the game — the Lions had used their final timeout before a third-and-1 conversion on the previous play — Gurley’s score gave Detroit a last-minute reprieve.

“I mean, shoot, I had my helmet on thinking the game was probably gonna be over,” the Lions’ Matthew Stafford said.

But it wasn’t. So Stafford buckled his chin strap and went back to work, doing what he does best, with the game on the line and, ultimately, in his hands.

“That’s my favorite part of the game,” said Stafford, who’d go on to engineer the 36th game-winning drive of his career and complete his 30th career fourth-quarter comeback. “I love this game. I love competing. And there’s no more pressure-packed situation than that. That’s what you live for as a quarterback.”

One last shot

Lions fans probably lived and died a few times on that final drive, with Stafford firing passes over the middle and the entire offense making mad dashes down the field to line up and spike the ball to stop the clock.

This being the Lions, there also was the obligatory officials’ review of the crucial play, a 29-yard heave that Kenny Golladay — six catches, 114 yards, cha-ching! — cradled at the 11-yard line with about 12 seconds left. After a frantic rush to spike the ball with three ticks left on the clock, then came a replay review, which led to some painful flashbacks for Stafford & Co., who recalled that infamous 10-second runoff after Golden Tate’s goal-line catch that cost the Lions a win against Atlanta in 2017.  

“I mean, same team, right?” Stafford said, shaking his head. “I’m just sitting there saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

But this time, the officials ruled in Detroit’s favor. And the Lions had one final shot, one that Stafford wasn’t going to waste. He dropped back to pass, but quickly realized the Falcons weren’t playing the coverage the Lions expected, and as the pocket collapsed around him, Stafford escaped to his left and bought some more time.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson, who’d cost the Lions valuable seconds when he failed to get out of bounds on a completion to start the drive, found a linebacker sitting in zone coverage in the middle of the field where Stafford was supposed to find him. But he kept running his route, and Stafford read his body language correctly before delivering a sidearm fastball for a called strike.

“When he reared back, I was like, ‘Oh, here it comes. Let’s do this,’” Hockenson said, grinning afterward.

They did it, all right. But they still weren’t done, because an unsportsmanlike penalty on Danny Amendola — he ripped his helmet off before joining the mob celebrating in the end zone — pushed Matt Prater’s point-after attempt back 15 yards.

“I was trying to tell Danny to put his helmet back on, but he was going bananas and wasn’t gonna listen to anything I said,” Stafford laughed. “So we’ll learn from that one. We’ll learn to count better and realize that we still needed to make the extra point to win the game.”

Prater, who’d missed a 46-yard field goal attempt earlier in the fourth quarter, booted his 48-yard PAT through the uprights, though. And after a flag that came flying on that play, too, proved to be on the defense, the game was finally over.

Signs of progress

That’s two consecutive wins now for the Lions, something they’ve done only three times in Patricia’s three seasons as head coach. They’ve yet to win three in a row in his tenure, but the Lions’ favorable midseason schedule — they just beat a pair of one-win teams, and Detroit’s next five opponents are a combined 11-22 — gives them a chance, at least, to climb back into playoff contention.

“It’s a great opportunity, but we’re not looking at the record like that,” veteran receiver Marvin Jones Jr. said. “The big thing that’s going around the locker room right now is creating our own story. ‘Don’t let anybody else write our story, or write us off.’”

That means blocking out the negativity that surrounded their 1-3 start, and it’s what Patricia kept preaching after the divisional losses to Chicago and Green Bay to start the season.

“You don’t ride that wave,” he said.

Not if you want to stay in control of where you’re headed, you don’t. As Jones explained Sunday, “Whatever happens to us is because of us.” And to their credit, the Lions have turned things around here, albeit with a little help from the Falcons on this day.

Among other things, they’ve shored up the run defense that gave them virtually no shot to win in the losses to the Packers and the Saints before the bye week. They limited a solid Jacksonville rushing attack to 44 yards on 16 carries a week ago. And the Falcons had managed just 28 yards on 16 carries through three quarters Sunday. They finished with 66 yards on 26 carries, which proved to be one more than they needed in the end.

But the early-down success also has helped the Lions generate something resembling a pass rush, at times. And for the second straight week, that produced a strip-sack fumble that proved critical in a win. It was Trey Flowers in Jacksonville, and Sunday it was his tag-team partner, Romeo Okwara, who raked the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands on a third-and-10 drop back near midfield late in the fourth quarter. Flowers recovered the fumble, and it led to Prater’s go-ahead field goal with 3:16 to play.

“I think we took another step with that today,” Patricia said. “And we’ll have to take another step next week.”

But for now, there’s tangible progress he can point to, along with some positive results. And based on the postgame reaction on the field — at one point, Jarrad Davis grabbed Patricia in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground in celebration — there’s a camaraderie that’s growing here, too.

“I’m just really proud of their effort and their unwavering mentality,” Patricia said. “We were gonna go out and do everything we could to win.”

Even if it took every last second to write their own ending.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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