The football came loose, the bodies flew, and as the pile of massive humans tumbled toward the sideline, trying to grab that pigskin before it went out of bounds, one man was wildly signaling “Lions ball!” as if his life depended on it.
Jim Caldwell, the coach.
He was in there so deep he nearly got tackled. “It was pretty close,” he would later joke. But you can’t fault his enthusiasm. That loose ball — a fumble by Philadelphia’s Ryan Mathews — was pretty much the season.
And that’s not hype.
Consider this: There were less than three minutes left and the Lions were losing, 23-21, after surrendering 16 unanswered points and looking hapless. They were staring at a 1-4 record and, had that happened, the coaching — defense, offense, and certainly the head man — would have been sizzled over a fiery grill.
All the Eagles had to do was hold on to the ball. They convert that third down? It’s fly home with a 4-0 record and leave the woeful Lions to another Blue Monday.
Ah, but the gremlins at Ford Field are fickle. This time, they sent a stinger to the other guys. Mathews lost the ball, the Lions recovered, and it set in motion a series of events that would pluck this season from the murky swamp.
For at least another week.
Tide turns late
“That turnover was huge,” Caldwell said. Mostly because it set up Big Play No. 2, again on third down, a patient, floating, backfooted loft by Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate — or, should we say, to a place where Golden Tate would eventually run to? — since the pass had more anticipation than a roomful of Democrats before the next Donald Trump video.
The ball floated, Tate ran underneath and pulled the thing in as if catching private manna from heaven, 27 yards to the Eagles’ 12. Suddenly, a game that had seemed lost was now a short field goal away.
“Golden did a great job,” Stafford said. “I was kind of waiting, waiting. … He got through some traffic. … I threw it to where I thought it was gonna be a good spot.”
A few plays later, Matt Prater kicked one straight and true for a 24-23 lead. Now just one obstacle remained:
Keep the Eagles from scoring with 1:28 left.
That, however, was hardly promising. The Lions’ defense, before the fumble, had been as porous as a wicker chair in a thunderstorm. The Eagles had scored on five of their previous six drives before the fumble. Their rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, had been as unflappable as a guy his father’s age. To that moment, he’d not lost a game no thrown an interception his entire rookie season.
Ah, but this is Detroit. Weird things happen. On the Eagles’ first play, Wentz went for broke, heaving a long ball meant for Nelson Agholor. Running with him, stride for stride, Lions cornerback Darius Slay made like Willie Mays, catching it over his shoulder, then curling from the receiver back the other direction, before sliding to the turf, the ball and the win safely in his grasp.
“I was surprised (Wentz) even threw that …” Slay later explained. “But then I looked into the air, and I said … ‘Oh, well, it’s time for his first career pick.’ ”
Out of the muck.
They’ll take it
Now, if you want to review the game — and I mean the whole game — there were many areas in which the Lions played poorly enough to lose. The defense gave up 6 yards a play on average. The offense went flat in the second half. It couldn’t convert that Tate pass into a touchdown. If not for Philadelphia drawing 14 penalties, 111 penalty yards and two turnovers, this might not have been close.
But close is what the Lions have to hope for (can you really see them blowing anyone out this year?) and so far they’ve won two in the final minutes, lost three in the final minutes and are at least mathematically still worthy of conversation. They did, after all, just beat an Eagles team that was undefeated and had thrown the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers down a flight of stairs. The Lions have their next two at home (Rams and Redskins) and who knows, maybe one day Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy might return.
In the meantime, it was a loose football that came back, and a coach who signaled “Ours!” but could have been saying, “Still mine!”
And once more, the local football team will drag us along for at least another week, half-thrilled, half-livid, all aboard for as long as it takes. Out of the muck. And into …
Aw, who knows with these guys?