“By rule the game is over.”
That was the last thing anyone heard. The ref announced it, and the stadium fell into a boofest that would scare a Games of Thrones zombie. High to low. Glory to ghastly. I have seen 32 years of Lions football in person, and I never thought it possible, but it happened again:
And this was really new, folks, because this was not ineptitude. This was not your Daddy’s Lions’ loss. This happened at the end of a dazzling, 89-yard drive in the last two minutes. This happened on the verge of the biggest win of the young season, and perhaps a turning point in the Lions reputation.
This happened when Lions, trailing 30-26 at home, before a deafening sell-out crowd, were a yard away from a game-winning touchdown, 12 seconds left, third down, and Matthew Stafford whipped a quick slant pass to Golden Tate, who fell forward into the end zone as the refs signaled touchdown.
Could this be? The Lions just beat the Falcons – the defending NFC champs and arguably the best team in football right now?
“What were you thinking when you caught that pass?” I asked Tate after the mayhem, as he stood alone in a quiet Lions locker room.
“I was thinking catch — and touchdown.”
So was everyone else. Which is why Ford Field sounded like a thousand Mardi Gras rolled into one. But the officials announced the play was being reviewed. And Tate spoke with one ref who reminded him that, because the Lions had no timeouts left, 10 seconds would come off the clock if the video showed he did not cross the plane before his knee was down.
And there were only 8 seconds left.
“I was ignorant of the rule,” Tate admitted.
What did you think when they told you?
That pretty much says it.
Six inches from 3-0
By now you either know what happened, or, if you’ve watched the Lions long enough, you also know what happened. The ruling went against Detroit. Tate’s knee hit a fraction before he crossed the line.
So even though the Lions did nothing wrong, and even though it was the refs who signaled touchdown, and even though you can argue if eight seconds would have been long enough to get a last play off, none of it mattered.
The Lions lost while standing still, six inches from the goal line.
By rule the game is over.
“It’s not fun,” Stafford said. No, it’s gut wrenching. It tears your heart out. You could see it on the faces of the Lions players after their first loss of the season. You could hear it in the comments of fans filing out of Ford Field.
So what I’ll say next may make it better, or make it worse. But it remains true, no matter how many times you watch that replay.
It should not have come down to that play.
The Lions were fortunate to be in this game. The Falcons exposed their defensive line, zooming through it like a jet ski. They racked up 428 yards of offense, 151 on the ground. But three interceptions by the usually impeccable Matt Ryan kept the Lions close. You could say they caused those picks, or you could say bad hands and lucky ricochets did.
Yes, the Lions hung tough. They also gave up 30 points and drew costly penalties. And on offense, five of their 11 possessions never saw a first down. They still can’t really run the ball, definitely can’t power run the ball, and the fact that first-and-goal at the 1 with 19 seconds left never raised the possibility of a run shows you the state of the Lions backfield.
Eric Ebron dropped passes. Defenders missed tackles. The Lions only scored one offensive touchdown. So yes, this wasn’t a game Detroit dominated and had stolen away.
But the Lions capitalized when they got a chance. The defensive backs did OK against a loaded Atlanta pass attack. Matt Prater was again great (five field goals). And Stafford (25-for-45, 264 yards) was unflappable. He threw a few passes that dazzled the Fox TV hosts as well as the crowd. He led his guys downfield when they most needed it. And in the final seconds, it doesn’t matter how much you deserve it if you still have a chance to win.
“We’re judged by wins and losses,” Stafford said. But you could tell the opportunity was haunting him.
“Man, it could’ve been a way different game…Too many field goals for us, not enough touchdowns. And ultimately, not a touchdown at the end. If we get that, this (news conference) is a whole different session.”
Instead, it’s a whole different way to lose. By rule the game is over. On the up side for Lions fans, the Book of Endurance just got another chapter. On the down side, who wants to keep reading that book?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.