It was a day to check your perfection at the door. The kickers would miss three of their four field-goal tries. Both quarterbacks would throw end-zone interceptions. There was a mosquito swarm of penalties, sometimes two on a single play. “September football,” Matthew Stafford would label it. “There’s some ugly stuff out there.”
And none of it was uglier than the way Darius Slay, the Detroit Lions‘ best cornerback, was having his lunch handed to him by Chargers All-Pro receiver Keenan Allen. One big play after another, one third down after another, Allen was rising, diving and consistently coming up with catches; Slay was coming up empty.
“Philip Rivers, right before the game, let me know, ‘Slay, it’s gonna be early and often,’ ” Slay would say. And it was. Early, often. Late, often. Allen had eight catches for 98 yards, most of the critical ones against Slay. For a guy whose nickname is “Big Play,” it was embarrassing.
But then, with the Chargers marching to a possible winning score in the final two minutes, only trailing by three points, Rivers dropped back on third down and — why not? — looked for his winning hand one more time.
The ball soared towards Allen, curling in the end zone. But this time, Slay had inside position. And he wasn’t giving it up.
“What were you saying to yourself when you saw that ball coming down?” Slay was asked after he picked off that pass to preserve the Lions’ gritty 13-10 squeaker over the Chargers.
“‘That (expletive’s) mine, that’s what I’m saying,” he said. “Ooh, that (expletive’s) mine.”
Change of fortune.
‘Whatever we had to do’
That play — and one that followed moments later, a third-and-6 deep in Lions territory, in which Stafford, instead of playing it safe for a punt, threw a pass to tight end Jesse James for a coffin-nailing first down — were symbolic of how a few good men, having a few bad moments, can make a few good plays and turn the tide of a Sunday.
And maybe a season.
Change of fortune. If last week was a game the Lions never should have blown, this was a game the Lions had to win. They could not start the season winless in two tries, not with Philadelphia, Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota next on the schedule. Do that, and you might as well find your snow shovel and fast forward to January. The Lions had to exorcise one ugly September football game by claiming another.
And they knew it.
“Whatever we had to do to get this win,” Slay said.
Folks in Los Angeles are no doubt talking about how Allen dominated Slay all game long, but that final mistake killed them. That doesn’t bother Slay. Heck, the Lions say that stuff all the time.
“I love the battle. Win, lose or draw, I’m going out to compete.”
“I appreciate the work that (Allen) gave me. I’m sure he appreciated mine.”
He may not have appreciated that last interception, someone suggested.
“No,” Slay laughed. “I mean, of course, that.”
It’s better than a tie
So, yes, it was a bit of a mess. A 13-10 victory often is. The Lions’ special teams were like a transistor radio stuck on static (penalties, missed kicks, a fumble). And the defense let the Chargers march downfield regularly, only to see them regularly implode (the Chargers’ place-kicker Sunday, a punter filling in, shanked two field goal tries that could have been the difference in the game).
But if it wasn’t a work of art, well, as Stafford and his coach Matt Patricia both said, at this time of year, art in the NFL often looks like finger painting.
“There is a lot of bad football in September,” Patricia explained. “I think there’s a lot of mistakes, there’s a lot of penalties. … Why is that the case? I don’t know. Sometimes we talk about training camp … but it’s just kind of been the trend for the last several years. …
“(So) we are going to have to overcome some things … and we’re just going to have to stay mentally tough through all of it. Really what happens is there is a lot of situational football that comes up because of it. … There was a lot last week, there was a lot here today.”
Here are the big situations the Lions muffed Sunday:
• An extra point missed by Matt Prater.
• An open Danny Amendola missed on third down by Stafford, and the ensuing field goal try missed — again — by Prater.
• Allowing the Chargers to drive 76 yards in 80 seconds for a field goal with two seconds to go before halftime.
• Two forced passes by Stafford that were picked off in the third quarter — one in the end zone — both a result of over-aggressiveness.
Any of those blown situations could have resulted in a defeat. But if games in September really come down to a few key opportunities, then here are the ones the Lions grabbed for their own:
• A beautiful screen pass from Stafford to Kerryon Johnson, who bobbled the ball, somehow caught it while running, and scampered 36 yards for the Lions’ first touchdown.
• A laser pass, 31 yards, from Stafford to Kenny Golladay in the end zone for the second touchdown.
• Another laser pass by Stafford to Marvin Jones on a fourth-down call.
• The Lions pulling a fumble out of an L.A. dive at the goal line, denying points and retaking possession.
• Slay’s interception.
• Stafford’s late third-down completion to James.
Situations won. Game won.
Now, on that last play, the call, it must be noted, came from new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Stafford has been a Lion long enough to expect a safe handoff and a punt, then a lot of prayer in the final seconds on the sidelines.
Instead, the play “came into my helmet and I was like, ‘This is gonna be awesome.’ ”
And it was. When they pulled it off, the crowd rose and cheered, not just for the apparent victory, but for the confidence, the execution, and the boldness the Lions showed, on that play and on several others.
September football may be sloppy, but it sets the tone. The last four years, the Lions have started 0-4, 1-3, 3-1, and 1-3.
I don’t need to tell you how they ended.
So let the other guys blow the key moments for a change. “That’s a good football team we just played over there,” Stafford noted. “A playoff football team from a year ago.”
He’s right. And there’s more coming just around the bend. Admit it. This certainly feels better than a tie. And as last week showed — and a smiling Slay proved Sunday — how you finish is all they remember.
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.