Early scoring chances slip away in defeat to Giants, though Lions still have chance to right ship, finish season strong.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — You knew Odell Beckham Jr. was lurking, a bat in the belfry, a quick bite that could come at any time. But when the Detroit Lions’ best defense against him, cornerback Darius Slay, went out early with a hamstring injury, you could almost hear Beckham cooing, “Here I come, here I come …”
And late in the game, here he came — and there it went, maybe the Lions’ best chance to avoid a dreaded late-season swoon, a 17-6 defeat to the New York Giants that featured a corked Detroit offense and an uncorked New York one.
It was still close, anyone’s game, when, with 8:12 left, a third-down throw by Eli Manning landed perfectly in Beckham’s hands, 25 yards gained.
And the Lions’ will, strong as it was, began to crack.
Three more plays gobbled 35 yards. And then, third down from the Lions’ 4, here came Beckham again, a one-handed catch that few receivers could make; he grabbed it, turned his body and extended the ball over the goal line, punching in a clinching touchdown.
“God gave me that ability,” Beckham would say.
“God help us,” Lions fans would mumble.
Giant Disappointment. Yes, Detroit trailed in the fourth quarter of this game, but that was the only thing familiar from the blueprint of their victories this season.
This time, there would be no last-minute miracle. This time, the offense would never put the ball in the end zone. This time, drives came up empty, Matthew Stafford was mortal, Detroit would lose the turnover battle, lose the time-of-possession battle, and drop the game by double digits, the first time that has happened all year.
And you wonder — maybe not loudly, but you do wonder — if the magic just shook loose from this season.
So much frustration
“One game,” Jim Caldwell said after the loss. “Didn’t play as well as we like. We’ll tee it back up again and get ready for the next one.”
That’s a standard coach response. But with Christmas on the horizon, there are only two games left, and Sunday felt like more than just another contest, because with Green Bay winning, and the Giants now a game ahead, the Lions’ tunnel for assured postseason entry (not relying on wild-card chances) is narrowing.
Once you’re done counting the Giants, of course.
“They’re a good team,” said Stafford, who felt their heat throughout this wet, blustery day, finishing 24-of-39 for 273 yards and an interception. “They’re a really good secondary, probably the best we’ve played all year.
“We lost the turnover battle. We lost the rushing battle. It’s tough to win on the road when you do that.”
The Lions had their chances early. In the second quarter, Stafford threw a beautiful shoulda-been-a-touchdown pass to Golden Tate that was poked away at the last second by rookie cornerback Eli Apple. (“A ball I probably should have jumped up and got,” Tate would say.)
Next trip down, Stafford found Tate on the sideline, as alone as the guy who just missed the subway. It went for 67 yards, to the New York 11, and gave Detroit a huge boost.
But the very next play, Zach Zenner took a handoff, shot up the middle and fumbled when the Giants’ Leon Hall crashed the ball with his helmet. It squirted around the end zone and was recovered by the Giants.
The ball, not Zenner’s helmet.
“I thought I had a good grip on it,” Zenner said. “And then the worst feeling in the world happened.”
There were other bad feelings. Third-down routes that didn’t reach the sticks. A late interception after a desperation drive. And the defense’s continued habit, despite nine wins this season, to act like a miracle cure for quarterbacks who are slumping and running backs who can’t get it going.
Do you know what the narrative was coming into this game for New York? Manning was old and tired and suddenly unproductive. The rushing game was non-existent.
No worries. The Lions made it all better. Manning started 11-for-11, his best opening ever, and he finished 20-for-28, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Manning had been averaging an interception per game coming in.
As for the run? Well, the Giants were one of the few teams ranked lower than the Lions. But on Sunday, Detroit surrendered over 100 yards on the ground, including 56 to someone named Paul Perkins, his career best.
The Lions are infuriating this way, pumping strength into the previously dead parts of teams. Yes, their ability to keep the points down in the red zone has masked this tendency. But on Sunday it bit them badly. The Giants were confident right from the start, marching downfield on the opening drive as if the Lions were still checking their bags.
Before you knew it, the score was 7-0, and the Giants — who can’t run — had rushed for 33 yards.
As Manning said, “That was big.”
In fact, it would be all the points they’d need.
Story line change
“We control our own destiny,” Stafford reminded everyone. And it’s true. They do. But they now must endure seven days of fans wringing their hands, doing the permutations, harping on the bad habits, remembering how Green Bay has stolen seasons in the closing moments before.
It won’t be fun. The Lions demonstrated Sunday that they can be schizophrenic. They came in better than the Giants at rushing, time of possession, third-down conversions and turnovers, and yet the Giants beat them in all four categories. Sure, they will say they are only focused on the Cowboys next Monday night (“only” is a weird word for that game) but by losing to the Giants, they also helped make that game more critical for Dallas.
Add to that the fact that Slay may be injured, that Theo Riddick may still be out, that only one team has beaten the Cowboys all year, and the only folks confident going into AT&T Stadium will be the Lions themselves.
Which is fine. They may play their best game that way — when nobody expects them to. Yes, I’d feel better if they managed to score touchdowns on their long drives, not field goals. Yes, I’d feel better if they didn’t act like a trip to Lourdes for opposing quarterbacks. Yes, I’d feel better if they didn’t have so many first-down runs that went for one or two yards.
And yes, sure, I’d feel better if the Lions had chosen Beckham in the 2014 draft, instead of passing over him to take Eric Ebron two spots earlier.
But here’s some good news. Stafford’s injured finger didn’t bother him! In fact, it didn’t seem to have much effect at all. When asked about it, he sloughed it off as a non-event.
Isn’t it funny how the biggest story of the week before can so quickly be discarded, and another one takes its place? Let’s hope the same thing happens with the game that slipped away here in the Meadowlands. The Lions don’t want to be replaying a Beckham catch in their heads. And they don’t want a Giant Disappointment to become the title for their final weeks.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.