Wojo: Against all odds, Lions find yet another excruciating way to lose

Detroit News

Detroit —  No way, that’s what they thought. No way could the ball be kicked that far, or could the Lions be kicked that hard, harder than they’ve ever been. This was the all-time of all-timers, the game that makes the mythical seem real, and forces Lions fans to curse curses.

It took a series of improbabilities for the Lions just to get in position to stun the Ravens. And then it took a series of impossibilities for it to disappear, the type of ghastly ending they couldn’t imagine until it happened. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker drilled an NFL-record 66-yard field goal on the final play to crush the Lions 19-17 and silence the roaring Ford Field crowd.

The kick itself wasn’t even the biggest improbability, arguably. Tucker is one of the best ever, and drilled a 61-yarder in the same building in 2013 to beat the Lions 18-16. The bouncing ball was a bigger improbability, off the crossbar, straight up, then tumbling through. And perhaps most improbable of all was the fourth-and-19 the Ravens converted moments earlier from their own 16, when a coverage breakdown left Sammy Watkins wide open for a 36-yard reception.

The Lions made tactical errors, physical errors and mental errors, so they don’t get to hang this on the bad-luck hook. Yet for all their misdeeds, this was particularly cruel punishment. There even was a question whether the Ravens should’ve been penalized for delay of game on the play before the kick. The play clock on the TV broadcast showed :00 for nearly two seconds before Lamar Jackson took the snap.

More: Niyo: Record-setting Tucker is the mayor of Lions misery after 66-yard stunner

Two things to know here. One, the broadcast clock is not necessarily in sync with the official clock on the field. And two, it still was going to take the longest field goal in the history of the sport to beat the Lions. They liked their odds. Ha, some of them are new to this.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Dan Campbell said, 0-3 in his first season. “I didn’t think it would make it.”

His voice was hoarse and his face was red as he searched for positives to extract from the fog of staggering defeat. The defense played well and Jared Goff played tough. In football, you usually get what you earn, and sometimes what you deserve. What the Lions got was inexplicable even by the Lions’ standards of inexplicableness.

“About as big of a gut punch as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Goff, 22-for-30 for 217 yards. “I guess I’ll start this off by saying that this team, this city has been through a lot, obviously, in recent years and has had these gut punches. All I’m saying is, we will remain true, we will remain resilient and the gut punches will stop.”

Goff shook his head and said it a couple times: “They made a field goal by a foot.” A foot shorter, a bounce slightly backward, and we’re talking about the Lions’ feisty competitive spirit. But with this franchise, a foot always seems like a furlong.

They showed something on this day, although the Ravens were missing several starters due to injury and COVID protocol. The Lions clawed back against a tough team, wiped out a 16-7 deficit and took a 17-16 lead on a 35-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso, newly elevated off the practice squad.

With 1:04 left, the ever-elusive Jackson was back on the field but the Lions didn’t let up. Uh, not until they did. Charles Harris sacked him. Romeo Okwara sacked him. It was fourth-and-19 with 26 seconds left from Baltimore’s 16 and the crowd was bursting to celebrate the Lions’ first victory.

The Lions felt good, but the Ravens always feel good with Jackson, and also the greatest long-distance kicker in existence. But 66 yards? The previous record was 64, set by former Lion Matt Prater with Denver in 2013. It was way back in 1970 when the Saints’ Tom Dempsey first tortured the Lions with a 63-yard field goal for — you guessed it — a 19-17 victory.

Every play matters and the Lions were outperformed on too many, way before the final one. Twice they committed false starts when poised to go for it on fourth down. Jackson was not his normal prolific self, but receiver Marquise Brown dropped two potential touchdown passes. The Lions hung around, and when Amani Oruwariye plucked an interception with 5:25 left, trailing 16-14, the Lions had their chance.

They drove smoothly to Baltimore’s 14 with two minutes left, then opted to play for the field goal. They ran three times, forced the Ravens to exhaust their timeouts, and Santoso kicked it with 1:04 left. It was a conservative approach that left too much time for Jackson. But still, they seemingly had him stopped, and got conservative again.

On fourth down, they rushed only three guys, and yet Watkins popped open downfield. Jackson had been under intense pressure and said he was relieved the Lions only rushed three, and also that Campbell called a timeout. Jackson caught his breath and heaved the ball, and you know the rest. The delay/no delay call, the kick, the bounce, the thud.

“I was happy for that timeout because we needed a little breather,” Jackson said. “The crowd was rocking, I don’t know where that crowd came from. We weren’t hearing it all game, and they just came out of nowhere. It was tough to play in Detroit today, for sure.”

That’s because the Lions came out of nowhere, listing and listless most of the game until they started feeding D’Andre Swift in the passing and running game. The front four cranked up the pass rush, sacking Jackson four times.

I asked Campbell if he regretted dialing it down on fourth-and-19, dropping more defenders into coverage. His strategy was safe and in many ways sound, keeping Jackson in front of them. But safe and sound never seems to work for the Lions.

“I thought the call was fine, it was just the way we played the call,” Campbell said. “Communication errors. I’ve said it before, it’s not an excuse, it’s a matter of how quickly you can clean it up. We do have growing pains. … But I am proud of the way we fought. I know we have the right guys here that are made up of the right things.”

The Lions have improved week to week, and if they play like they did in the fourth quarter against the 49ers, or in the first half against the Packers, or in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, they’ll piece together some victories, perhaps in Chicago next week. It’s not a defeated, dispirited group, even after the most deflating defeat imaginable.

The most recent comparable is probably the 27-23 loss to the Packers in 2015, when Aaron Rodgers heaved a 61-yard Hail Mary on the final play. That seemed inexplicable too, until you realized the Lions were in the wrong defense. You’re allowed to be masters of your own fate, no matter who did what before you got here.

Jamaal Williams is one of those new guys, and he runs and talks with a joyful edge. As a team leader, he spoke up after the game and stressed the positives, as the negatives swirled. The reminders hover, even at halftime Sunday when Calvin Johnson received his Hall of Fame ring and the crowd cheered him, and lustily booed owner Sheila Ford Hamp and owner emeritus Martha Ford.

The history always hangs, increasingly heavier it seems.

“Even when the game doesn’t start yet, people are already thinking the Lions are going to lose,” Williams said. “When you have those types of energies around you … Sometimes fate is against us. Sometimes it tries to stop us. We just keep fighting.”

They lost this fight on a gut punch that probably felt like a sucker punch. At least they can take solace in knowing they scrapped back and nothing will ever top this. Nothing will, right? I mean, right?


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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