Detroit — Justin Tucker has been here before, and he’d done that.
So after the Baltimore Ravens kicker did it again Sunday afternoon at Ford Field, booting an NFL-record 66-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Lions, 19-17, who could blame him for feeling right at home here?
After all, it was eight years ago — in just his second NFL season — that Tucker drilled a 61-yarder with 18 seconds left to beat the Lions, 18-16, in this same stadium. He scored all the Ravens’ points in that game with six field goals, in fact, as Baltimore dealt a serious blow to the Lions’ playoff hopes and effectively ended Jim Schwartz’s coaching tenure in Detroit.
Sunday, was his first time back in town.
“Yeah, it’s like déjà vu, all over again,” Tucker said Sunday, smiling as he cradled a souvenir football that may end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, eventually. “Man, I love Detroit. I’m thinking about getting a place here.”
He’ll have a place here, one way or another. Because Sunday’s historic kick is just one more foot in the stomach for tortured Lions fans.
“About as big of a gut punch as I’ve ever been a part of,” was how quarterback Jared Goff, who’s admittedly new to town, summed up his emotions following Sunday’s loss.
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And the image of that football bouncing off the crossbar and then cartwheeling through the uprights in the east end zone, well, that’s just one more that’ll live in infamy here in Detroit. More seasoned Lions fans no doubt recall the Saints’ Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard kick to beat the Lions back in 1970 — that one ended in a 19-17 final as well — and set the NFL standard that held up for more than four decades.
“But I just … I don’t even know how to describe it,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Sunday. “I didn’t think it would make it. If you said, ‘They’re going to (have to) hit a 66-yarder to win the game,’ you’d take those odds. But he made it.”
Again. I mean, seriously, what are the odds, right?
“Someone came up to me on the sideline and said, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that before?’” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, shaking his head in a postgame press conference. “And it came to me right away: No, because nobody’s ever done anything like that before.”
Even Tucker had his doubts as he lined up to take the kick. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had converted a fourth-and-19 moments earlier, thanks in part to Campbell’s decision to call a timeout prior to that play and the Lions opting for a three-man rush after creating all kinds of pressure on the three previous snaps on Baltimore’s last-gasp possession.
Then the Ravens appeared to get a gift from the officiating crew. Jackson spiked the ball on the ensuing first-down play with seven seconds left in the game. But on second down, the play clock seemed to run out well before he snapped the ball and quickly fired a pass incomplete into the visitors’ sideline. Harbaugh was hoping to steal another 5 yards or so with a quick sideline completion, but to no avail. Yet a 5-yard penalty probably would’ve left him no choice but to try a Hail Mary play to win the game.
Instead, though, the stage was set for Tucker, who’d tested his range in pregame warmups and said he came up short from 65 yards kicking both ways.
“For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get the ball to go,” he shrugged later. “Thankfully, we found an extra yard and a half that I didn’t have 3 hours before, and I’m grateful for that.”
How, exactly, he isn’t sure. In fact, Tucker admits he wasn’t sure about a lot of what transpired in those final, fateful seconds Sunday.
“Honestly, I’ll have to look at it,” he said. “I was kind of having a little bit of an out-of-body experience for a minute.”
But he says in the last year or so he has started taking an extra half-step of distance in his approach on longer field goals.
“As I’m becoming more and more of a dinosaur in this league at 31 years old, I’ve gotta do every little thing I can to get the ball to go just a little bit farther,” he said.
And really, when it needs to go this far — farther than any kick has gone in an NFL game before — it requires a different approach altogether.
“When you’re that far away, you have to abandon some of your technique that would help a ball go straight,” Tucker explained. “You sacrifice some of that just to gain a little power and use the adrenaline and the feeling of the moment just to get the ball to go. So I hop into it just a little more aggressively and instead of landing on my plant foot I just basically kick the ball off like it’s a kickoff.”
This one looked like a kickoff in the moment, and as the ball made an arc through stadium, everyone had their own view of it.
“As soon as it left my foot, I knew it was gonna have a chance,” Tucker said.
Harbaugh thought so, too, watching from the sideline.
“Just when it went across the line of scrimmage and maybe 20 yards downfield I thought, ‘That’s got a chance,’” he said. “And then I thought it was gonna clear it by 2 yards. And then it hit the (crossbar), slow motion. And then it bounced the right way.”
When it did, Jackson still wasn’t sure. But he saw one of the Ravens’ equipment guys celebrating, so he knew his eyes hadn’t deceived him. He threw his Gatorade cup in the air and joined his teammates streaming onto the field to mob Tucker.
The 66-yarder erased Matt Prater’s previous NFL record of 64 yards — also from 2013, when he was playing for the Denver Broncos — and came just a week after Prater, who’d spent the past seven years kicking for the Lions, drilled a 62-yarder for the Cardinals. And while Tucker hadn’t yet heard from Prater after this game, he expected too soon enough.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he just goes and does the same thing — we’ll just keep one-upping each other,” joked Tucker, who has converted on 49 consecutive fourth-quarter field goals and is 16-for-16 in his career inside the final minute of regulation. “I mean, there are so many talented specialists in this league — kickers, punters, snappers, the like. … But I’d like to think that this one is gonna be tough to break.”
You’d think so. Unless you’re a Lions fan, in which case you’d know better.