They’re going for two? They’re going for two. A minute and 7 seconds left, down 20-19 after scoring a touchdown, yet the Carolina Panthers, staring at the Lions defense, were going for two. In football that usually means one of two things: You’re depleted and have one last shell in your cannon.
Or you don’t think much of your opponent’s defense.
Whatever the case, the Lions didn’t have time to consider it. They had just watched the Panthers drive 75 yards as if sledding down a mountain, four Cam Newton passes to four different receivers, 34, 12, 21 and 8 yards, none of which were well-defended.
And here was Newton again, calling for the snap.
They’re going for two?
“That’s a pretty bold move,” Lions linebacker Devon Kennard would later say. “…I guess they felt pretty confident.”
Well, why wouldn’t they? The Panthers came to the line with running back Christian McCaffrey, who’d eaten the Lions for over 100 yards of offense, receiver DJ Moore, who’d already torched their secondary for seven catches, Greg Olsen, a talented tight end perfect for short-yardage plays, and, oh yeah, Newton, the superstar quarterback who can escape pressure, run like the wind, and plow through tacklers like a linebacker.
“I’m quite sure,” Darius Slay would say of Newton, “he’s the one saying, ‘Let’s go for two.’ ”
Whoever made the call, it was possibly the Lions’ season. Blow it, and it seemed unlikely they could drive for a winning score, given the karma of the day, and that their last drive went 2 yards in three plays, or about the length of an average hop.
But stop it? Well. Stop it and the season lives for another week — perhaps on life support, but still breathing.
“What was your approach on that 2-point conversion?” someone would ask Lions coach Matt Patricia.
“To keep them out,” he would say.
And the ball was snapped. …
Lucky trumps unlucky
Now, in the NFL, this is always true: good trumps bad, lucky trumps unlucky, and victory trumps defeat. The hows and whys are secondary.
So you can argue all you want whether the Panthers should have gone for this in the first place, and you can argue all you want about what happened when they did. The Lions secondary fell back on the receivers, and their front line came after Newton but didn’t get close to him. One second passed. Two seconds. Three seconds. Newton surveyed the end zone like a man studying the ocean waves.
“It felt long,” Slay would admit.
“It felt like 15 seconds,” Ricky Jean Francois would add.
“It felt like forever,” Kennard would say.
But nothing is forever, and this turned out to be just that, nothing — as Newton finally whipped an inaccurate ball towards an open Jarius Wright, not even close enough for him to get a hand on it. The ball hit the turf, Ford Field exploded, and all Detroit had to do was take a few knees, and they had a win, their first in a month.
Now, was that good Lions defense, or a terrible clutch throw by Newton? Was it bold and gutsy coaching by Carolina’s Ron Rivera, or a skittish lack of confidence in his kicker Graham Gano, who had already missed a field goal and an extra point?
As I said, it doesn’t matter. Lucky trumps unlucky, victory trumps defeat, and while the Lions might easily have been explaining this one with soft voices and bowed heads, instead the locker room was buoyant with the chance to jump back into the NFL playoff conversation with another win in four days — the annual and always unpredictable Thanksgiving game, a critical NFC North contest against the division-leading Chicago Bears.
“This was a huge one,” tackle Taylor Decker said, “to hopefully get things back on track.”
The key word being “hopefully.”
Because the Lions — despite protecting Matthew Stafford well and avoiding penalties, two things they haven’t done well during their losses — still need a lot of hope.
Just read the injury report.
This win hurt
Lost in the euphoria of this victory — which lifts the Lions to a whopping 4-6 on the season — is the fact that we may have watched their best hope at a miracle limp off the field Sunday, when rookie running back Kerryon Johnson came up gimpy in the third quarter, after reversing his field on an exhausting run that ended with two Carolina defenders on top of him.
Johnson, who to that point had 87 rushing yards and a touchdown, rose with a hitch in his giddyup. He tried to walk it off. He then disappeared into the Lions locker room and never returned. As of this writing, all we know is some sort of knee injury.
But that’s a critical development. Knee injuries do not heal quickly. And Johnson, in no uncertain terms, is the difference between this offense cranking or coughing. On Sunday, while he was available, the successful drives featured a healthy dose of handoffs to his midsection, and the unsuccessful ones didn’t. He is the best running threat the Lions have had in a decade. He’s explosive, has outside speed and inside cuts, and, most importantly, makes a defense choose between covering him or keying on Stafford.
Let’s face it. No other running back the Lions have — and that includes newcomer LeGarrette Blount, who seems to get slower each week — scares any NFL defense.
Without Johnson, teams can tee it up against Detroit’s passing game — a passing game missing Golden Tate (traded) and Marvin Jones (injured). That leaves Stafford with 1) the fine second-year receiver, Kenny Golladay (who saved the day Sunday with eight catches and a late touchdown), 2) the backup T.J. Jones, and 3) whomever they sign that week.
Stafford admitted not having Marvin Jones, “was tough, but I’m proud of the guys that stepped in.”
Even if he had to ask them, “What’s your name again?”
Ah, well. Why be negative? (There’s time for that after a Lions loss.) You gain nothing by pointing out that without Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ running backs had 1 yard rushing.
Or that the newly called-up cornerback Mike Ford made two horrible plays that led to huge yardage.
Or that Gano, the Panthers’ kicker, had been perfect on field goals this season until Sunday, perfect, as in no misses, and, had that continued, we likely wouldn’t be writing about a Detroit win.
But lucky trumps unlucky. What works tops what doesn’t. And Sunday it was Carolina who had all the explaining to do.
“I got to make that play,” Newton said after the loss. “We make that play, we have all the confidence in our defense stopping those guys.”
“I went for two to win the football game,” Rivera added. “…We didn’t come here to tie, we didn’t come here to lose. We came here to win the football game.”
And they lost it. After all the scenarios that could have unfolded, this is the one that did:
They went for two.
They got nothing.
The Lions will snag this win, and the mathematical possibility of still making a playoff, and they’ll churn in it just long enough to get your stomach going for the next three days, until the delirious malady called “being a Lions fan” drags you in front of a TV set yet again, yet again.
Happy Thanksgiving, right?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.