A giant fist hangs in our downtown. It suggests a city that knows the value of a wallop. And for most of the slugfest that was the Lions-Chiefs epic Sunday afternoon, a bloodied Detroit football team was giving as good as it was taking. Justin Coleman punched a ball loose for a fumble. Trey Flowers did the same. Jamal Agnew punched a ball free on a punt return. The Lions hit hard, blocked hard, played hard, through injury and self-inflicted wounding, and kept swinging at a Kansas City team that some thought would eat Detroit for lunch.
It was like watching 15 rounds of the first “Rocky” fight. The underdog would not go down.
But with the game on the line, fourth-and-8 with less than two minutes left and Ford Field as loud as many have ever heard it, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took the snap, gave a quick look, and realized the opponent had just tried a haymaker. And whiffed.
He took off up the middle, and wasn’t touched until 15 yards later.
“That,” Lions linebacker Devon Kennard would later say, “was the game.”
No moral victories. The Chiefs would ride the momentum of that escape all the way to the end zone for a come-from-behind winning touchdown and the final score, 34-30.
Don’t be happy about that. Don’t admire how close the game was. Not if you want — as the Lions players and the front office wants — a consistent, high-level NFL team in this town.
Close is better than far, but not as good as there. And the Lions showed Sunday that “there” is actually visible in the telescope.
Sure, there were a host of watershed moments Sunday, good ones and bad ones, tightly thrown touchdown passes, great breakaway runs, opportunistic defensive plays and agonizing offensive flubs, all of which added up to the weirdest, wildest, best-played defeat the Lions have had in years, one that left fans feeling oddly unsure of their reaction:
Should they holler at the opportunities the Lions blew, or be impressed at the shining moments against arguably the best team in the NFL?
Kerryon Johnson didn’t waver.
“The NFL doesn’t do rankings,” he said, correctly. “Nobody cares at the end of the year if you almost beat the best team. There’s only one team happy.”
And Sunday it wasn’t the Lions.
Johnson, more than anyone, knows why.
‘I didn’t hear no whistle’
That’s because, on a day full of thumping blows, the biggest of all was a sucker punch, a play that will live in Lions infamy:
Third quarter. Score: 13-13. Lions 1 yard from the end zone. Johnson took the handoff, surged forward, and, as he went down, tried to stretch the pigskin over the plane.
“The play is dead, I shouldn’t have been reaching the ball out,” he would later say.
Here’s why. It squirted loose late. Because Johnson was in the pile, as were half the other players, everyone figured he was down. Nobody reacted. Nobody except a clever cornerback named Bashaud Breeland, who was once a champion track star in California.
Breeland raced in like a mouse scurrying after forgotten bread crumbs. He dug the ball loose and took off with it.
Everyone just watched. Even fans had a “Come on, stop showboating” attitude. Kenny Golladay, the Lions receiver, took a lazy swipe at Breeland, more of a “knock it off” than a tackle. But Breeland just kept running.
“I didn’t hear no whistle,” he would explain. “So I just went and picked it up and ran with it.”
And suddenly the refs were running with him, too, and a sickening feeling came over the Lions and their fans. Because moments after Breeland dashed untouched into the end zone, the refs were saying the ruling was a fumble, and the result was a touchdown.
Seven points blown. Seven points given up.
On one play.
“Catastrophic,” Johnson said.
Now, it’s true, that’s a freak occurrence. It’s true, it felt like a dead play. It’s true, it was really loud.
But football players are taught from pee wee onward to “keep playing until you hear the whistle.” And if a guy picks the ball up and runs, you tackle him first, ask if the play is dead second. The Lions didn’t do that. They went from the lip of being up 20-13 to being down 20-13.
“We’ve got to finish,” Lions coach Matt Patricia admitted. “… We’ve got to at least wrap them up and make them blow the whistle and make it dead at that point.”
Added Johnson: “It changed the game.”
‘We’re a good football team’
It did. But it didn’t lose it. In fact, strange as it sounds, the Lions played some of their most inspired football after that miscue. And here is where Lions fans find some sweet milk to wash down the bitter pill. Because in the previous land of “Same Old Lions,” that kind of a mistake — a 100-yard fumble return — might have folded the tents. Sent the fat lady singing.
Instead, Matthew Stafford led his guys back out there, and on the very first play, went to Johnson with a pass that picked up 22 yards. Six plays later, Matt Prater hit a long field goal. And while they still trailed, 20-16, the Lions proved they had absorbed the blow. The game, despite the karma, would go on.
“What did you say after that fumble return,” Stafford was asked, “to keep the team from going into a funk?”
“My point was, if we (had) scored a touchdown there, the game wasn’t going to end,” Stafford replied. “There was a lot of football left …They weren’t going to give us the game if we punched it in.”
So instead, they just kept punching. And by the end they had produced — and this may sound funny for a defeat in which they twice blew first-and-goal situations — a damn good highlight film:
Here was Stafford whipping passes with the accuracy of a needle-threader, 21-for-34, 291 yards, including a head-shaking bullet to Golladay in the end zone and beautifully dropped passes to Marvin Jones and newly activated Marvin Hall. Stafford, who would even break two tackles on a desperation first-down run, finished with three touchdown passes to Mahomes’ zero.
Here was Kerryon Johnson having perhaps his biggest breakout game, when you consider the opponent: 125 yards rushing in a workman capacity, another 32 yards in receptions. On a day when Barry Sanders and Billy Sims were in the house, Johnson acquitted his position well.
Here was the Lions’ defense keeping Mahomes from a single touchdown pass for only the third time since he became a starter in 2018. And, while never getting him on the ground for a sack, they periodically forced him into errant passes with a tight man-to-man coverage, on a day when Darius Slay and later Quandre Diggs were out.
Yes, the game will, in time, be remembered for miscues: five combined fumbles in the third quarter, which has to be some kind of record. And Golladay having a touchdown nullified by the officials (who ruled it juggled). And the fumble return that nobody bothered to chase. And the wide-open ground that the KC receivers had all day. Even the Lions’ two Hail Mary attempts in the final seconds.
But you can pick many vantage points from which to view this contest. And if you choose to focus on the positive plays, of which there were many, that’s fine.
Just don’t be happy, or satisfied. Because this is what good — and certainly great — teams are supposed to do at home. Have a dogfight with the teams everyone picks for greatness. Remember, the Lions beat the Patriots last year. And the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl. Why should beating Kansas City have been out of reach?
It shouldn’t. Not if we ever expect to break the funk that has hung over this football town for decades.
When someone asked Stafford if the Lions had proved something to people with their performance Sunday, he momentarily bristled.
“I don’t think we need to prove anything to anybody … We’re a good football team. And we lost to another good football team today.”
Exactly the attitude it will take to change things around here.
No moral victories. But not the old gloom, either. This was good, hard-hitting football, some loose balls caused by both teams, and a result that was a lot closer than critics predicted. Given that the Lions won’t play the Chiefs again for many years (thanks to the NFL schedule) it may indeed be like the end of “Rocky,” where the weary hero says, “ain’t gonna be no rematch.”
Unless, of course, it’s in a Super Bowl. For the first Sunday loss in a very long time, that idea didn’t seem laughable.
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 Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.