Detroit — This was a fiercely fought game destined to come down to one play, and considering the pedigrees of the teams, it was surprising, even mesmerizing. And ultimately for the Lions, agonizing.
No matter how many plays you make in an NFL game, it doesn’t matter unless you make the last one, a truism the Lions experience as often as any team in the league. Oh, they made all sorts of positive plays against a Super Bowl favorite, the Buffalo Bills, in a packed, raucous Ford Field. They needed one more, maybe two more, and they would’ve been the talk of the league on a festive Thanksgiving Day.
Instead, the Lions dropped a 28-25 crusher Thursday when Tyler Bass drilled a 45-yard field goal with two seconds left. The Lions had a lead, lost it, got it back and had another chance but fell short. When it comes down to one play, it usually comes to two people, the coach and the quarterback.
Dan Campbell had a good day, up until the end. Jared Goff had a good day, up until the end. The Lions (4-7) looked like a solid team, poised to extend their winning streak to four, right up until the end. It has been their story for a long time, and although promising signs abound, the story won’t change until the endings change. They had a chance to make a huge stir and couldn’t finish it. The encouraging part is, if they play this well against other tough opponents, they’ll get more prime chances.
“That’s a (Buffalo) team regarded as one of the best in the NFL, and truthfully, I didn’t feel we were outmatched at all,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “It hurts even more because we were right there. I said it before, this isn’t the f—— same old Lions anymore. We’re gonna go out there and get our respect.”
The Lions did outplay the Bills for stretches, and Goff did outplay celebrated counterpart Josh Allen for stretches. For almost a month now, the Lions have looked different, confident and competent, winning three straight, two on the road. They led this one 22-19 with barely two minutes remaining, the time frame that separates championship contenders from feisty upstarts.
The Bills (8-3) pulled it out because their star quarterback shook off a rough outing and made clutch plays, including a 7-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Stefon Diggs with 2:40 left. The Lions still had their chance, trailing 25-22 with 32 seconds left, when Campbell and his staff made a peculiar call, and Goff made a peculiar throw.
On third and inches from Buffalo’s 33, Goff took a deep shot toward the end zone. Whether it was a simple overthrow or a miscommunication with receiver D.J. Chark, it was way off target. Obvious question: Why not run for a first down before taking an end-zone shot? Then, rather than trying to convert on fourth-and-inches, Campbell sent out kicker Michael Badgley, who nailed the 51-yard field goal with 23 seconds left. It was a drive that was good enough to tie, and good enough to lose.
If you give Allen and the Bills 23 seconds, you’re surrendering control of the game. To a man, Campbell, Goff and other offensive players said they loved the pass call. The problem is, it was a risky play with minimal reward. It’s not Goff’s forte, throwing deep. And even if it’s completed, the Bills would have time to come back. I think the Lions chose the poorest of the options, ultimately playing for a tie that left time for Allen to break it. He broke it immediately with a 36-yard pass to Diggs, setting up the winning field goal.
“That was a great call,” Goff said of the throw on third down. “There’s four receivers on the play and you can throw to any of them. And the guy I picked was open but we didn’t hit it, so we can second-guess it all we want. But no, I love the call, and wish I would have made it work some way or another.”
In game-turning decisions like that, the only right decision is the one that works. And Campbell has gotten better at picking the ones that work, going three-for-three on fourth-down attempts against the Bills. He essentially stole 14 points with fourth-down gambles — a 2-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Williams and a 1-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Whether Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson are making smarter decisions or calling smarter plays, the gambling worked. Right up until the end, when Campbell declined to go for it fourth-and-inches at Buffalo’s 33, opting for the field goal. Asked if he regretted not running the ball on third down, or fourth down, Campbell admitted it was considered.
“We certainly could have done that,” he said. “But no, we liked the play call. Didn’t work out, kicked the field goal.”
It wasn’t a clock-management issue for Campbell because he’d preserved two timeouts, in case the Lions did run the ball. It was a play-management issue. His offensive line was blocking well and Williams was running hard. On the flip side, Goff also was playing well, 23-for-37 for 240 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. One of the receivers on the pass play was St. Brown, the Lions’ best offensive player.
But against one of the top-three teams in the NFL, you don’t get a second chance to make a first choice.
“When you’re playing that caliber team, every play is significant,” Campbell said. “But I also want (his players) to understand it should sting that we lost that game because we had our opportunities. That doesn’t mean we took a step back either. I still felt growth today. … I just told (the team), we belong and they should know that, and they do know that.”
The Bills had been stumbling a bit of late, and Allen has been dealing with a sore elbow. But the Lions were missing their two starting guards and still patching on defense, and for a fourth consecutive game, they did look like they belonged.
Allen got loose, as he often does, for 78 yards rushing but he didn’t heat up with Diggs — until the end. The Lions’ defense continues to improve as coordinator Aaron Glenn uses more players and gets more creative. They were without top cornerback Jeff Okudah, but rookie linebacker James Houston was called up from the practice squad and responded with two sacks. Linebacker Alex Anzalone was all over the field and intercepted a deflected pass deep in the Lions’ end.
On the CBS-TV broadcast, Tony Romo raved about the Lions’ spirited play. Those compliments sometimes sound patronizing, but this was a wildly entertaining game on a day when the Lions often get blown out. They were in it the entire way, right to the end.
Are they good enough to be a playoff team? At 4-7 with several winnable games ahead, slight chance. If they’d finished off the Bills, it’d be on the minds of every Lions fan.
“If we could’ve gotten that win, it would’ve been so huge,” Decker said, shaking his head. “But I will say our confidence is not gonna wane.”
The closer they get, the harder it can get, and the pain was etched on the faces of Campbell, Goff and others. One step or one call away seems like a small gap, but in the NFL, it’s sometimes the widest and toughest to close.