Detroit — The Detroit Lions didn’t win their season opener, but showed plenty of fight trying to execute an improbable rally in the closing minutes.
Down 24 points with under two minutes remaining, the Lions scored a pair of touchdowns, converting two-point conversions after each, before forcing a turnover to give them a shot to tie Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field.
Ultimately, quarterback Jared Goff’s final pass to no one in particular hit the turf, allowing the 49ers to escape with a 41-33 victory in coach Dan Campbell’s debut.
“We didn’t do enough to win there,” Campbell said. “We dug ourselves in a really big ditch, early, against a very good team. Everything that we said that we needed to do to win this game we really didn’t do. We were better in the second half. We gave ourselves a chance, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Things started reasonably well for the Lions, to the point where you could convince yourself they had a puncher’s chance against the heavily favored 49ers. But the illusion of competitiveness quickly gave way to preseason expectations.
The 49ers scored 24 points in the second quarter, jumping out to a big lead at the half.
The Lions didn’t do themselves any favors early in the contest, coming away with zero points despite ending each of their first two possession in 49ers’ territory.
On the opening possession, the Lions turned it over after running back Jamaal Williams lost his footing and was stopped in the backfield on fourth down. And when the 49ers gave the ball right back, fumbling their first snap, kicker Austin Seibert’s 51-yard field goal attempt drifted just left of the mark.
“Now we’ve just squandered two opportunities on offense, when we could have capitalized on what the defense did for us,” Campbell said.
Video: Breaking down Detroit Lions’ loss to San Francisco 49ers
Justin Rogers and John Niyo break down the Detroit Lions’ wild season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Gifted a short field after the miss, San Francisco’s offense got to work with back-to-back run plays netting 20 yards, followed by a 23-yard pass to star tight end George Kittle.
Facing third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, rookie quarterback Trey Lance entered the game and perfectly executed a play-action pass, connecting with wide receiver Trent Sherfield for the touchdown.
The Lions would respond, knotting it at 7 with a 13-play scoring drive. Williams kick-started the series with a 20-yard run, and the Lions converted after going for it on fourth down in 49ers territory a second time when Goff found Tyrell Williams for a 6-yard gain on a pick play.
Goff capped the series with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson.
San Francisco would need a little more than two minutes to counter. Its four-play touchdown drive included a 29-yard reception by Deebo Samuel and a 38-yard touchdown run by running back Elijah Mitchell, who jetted through a massive hole around the right side of his offensive line.
Detroit answered with a 49-yard Seibert field goal, but it would be their final points of the half. San Francisco, meanwhile, continued to carve up the Lions’ defense.
Another big gain for Samuel, and a roughing-the-passer penalty against Lions safety Will Harris, set up a 3-yard touchdown plunge by running back JaMycal Hasty, extending the 49ers’ lead, 21-10.
Goff would make the hole deeper on Detroit’s ensuring possession, forcing a pass into triple coverage that was intercepted by linebacker Dre Greenlaw and returned 39 yards for a touchdown.
“I was trying to get something in there to T.J. (Hockenson),” Goff said. “Unfortunately, the ball didn’t come out the way that I wanted it to with what he had going on. Yeah, just one I’d like to have back. Certainly, wasn’t throwing it over there.”
The 49ers added a 40-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the second quarter, taking a 31-10 lead to the locker room.
Despite both teams working their way into opposing territory to start the third quarter, neither offense came away with points after the 49ers missed a long field goal and the Lions were forced to punt.
Detroit appeared on the verge of getting the ball back on the following possession after linebacker Jamie Collins got through on a third-down blitz and hit quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as he attempted a deep shot to Samuel.
The hit altered the throw, causing it to come up short, but Samuel adjusted to make the grab. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, in coverage on the play, couldn’t match the receiver’s adjustment and found himself out of position to make a tackle after the catch, resulting in Samuel outrunning the defense for a 79-yard touchdown.
“I saw he was 1-on-1,” Garoppolo said. “I knew we were in a tough situation. I thought I’d just give him a chance, I tried to back shoulder him a little bit. I got hit pretty good on it, so I didn’t really see it, but it was kind of funny, me and Trent (Williams) were getting up from the pile and everything and the next thing we know Deebo was crossing the goal line.”
Keeping faint hope alive, the Lions finally stopped the slide late in third quarter. Goff completed three consecutive passes to his running backs. On the third, D’Andre Swift found some space made the deep safety miss for a 43-yard touchdown.
“I really didn’t have to do much,” Swift said. “Jonah (Jackson) did a good job of making a kickout block on the linebacker. I really didn’t have to do much, just get out vertical and make a man miss, thanks to Jonah.”
But despite forcing the 49ers to punt for the first time, the Lions offense couldn’t build any momentum, going three-and-out. That led to more points for the visitors, thanks to a 52-yard Robbie Gould field goal.
Up 24 with under 10 minutes remaining, the 49ers relaxed their defense to eat up some clock. But the Lions couldn’t manage to take timely advantage of that, turning it over on downs near midfield when receiver Trinity Benson dropped an errant Goff throw near the first-down marker.
But the Lions somehow managed to make the end of the game interesting, finally mustering a touchdown with 1:53 remaining after driving 86 yards on 12 plays. Williams finished the series with a 1-yard touchdown run, followed by a two-point conversion grab for Hockenson, cutting the deficit to 16.
The ensuing onside kick was recovered by Lions running Godwin Igwebuike, giving the offense the ball back at their own 41-yard line. Goff, delivering his best ball of the day, connected with receiver Kalif Raymond on a 20-yard back shoulder fade to the 2-yard line. That led to a 2-yard touchdown pass to Quintez Cephus on the next snap.
Cephus then made it a one-score game by hauling in a 2-point conversion.
The Lions proved unable to recover a second onside effort, but with all three timeouts remaining, they were in position to force a punt. It turns out they wouldn’t need to.
On a third-down reception by Samuel that should have ended the game, Trey Flowers forced a fumble recovered by rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu at the Lions’ 30-yard line with 52 seconds remaining.
The Lions got all the way to the 49ers’ 24-yard line before the defense clamped down to seal the victory.
“I think that you find out a lot about who you are,” Goff said, reflecting on the rally that came up short. “There are going to be a lot of games this year that are going our way and games that aren’t going our way. This one certainly was not early on. I think you find out who you are as a team and we found out a little bit about some guys today, which is a good thing.
“With that being said, we can’t put ourselves in that position,” Goff said. “We can’t go down that much early and expect to have a high percentage of victory very often. Specifically, to myself, can’t throw a pick on the two-minute drill, specifically a pick-6 and give them that momentum, all that right before the half. Would love to have that one back but I was proud of how the guys fought.”
The loss marks five years since the Lions won a season-opener. They’ll hit the road to battle NFC North rival Green Bay next week on Monday Night Football.