If you watched only the second quarter, you might have believed the Detroit Lions were headed to the Super Bowl.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were simply unstoppable.
But if you watched the rest of the game, you’re probably wondering how the Lions possibly could be in first place in their division.
The offense stalled, the defense couldn’t come through with a big play and coach Jim Schwartz made the type of decision that is considered gutsy if it’s successful and boneheaded if it fails.
It failed and that proved to be very costly in the end.
The Lions, despite overcoming an early 14-point deficit, collapsed down the stretch and lost 37-27 to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday on a rainy afternoon at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
The game totally swung on a surprising fake field goal by Detroit with 12:49 remaining. The Lions were in position to regain a seven-point lead by kicking the 27-yarder, but they went for the knockout punch instead.
Holder Sam Martin, the team’s punter, tried to run for the end zone on fourth-and-5 from the 10-yard line.
But he fumbled while getting stopped short of the first down by about a yard by defensive tackle Steve McLendon, giving the ball – and the momentum – back to the Steelers.
“The strategy was to try to win the football game,” Schwartz explained during his post-game radio show. “We thought it was there and we’re going to be aggressive and try to make it. We didn’t make it but there’s a lot of other plays in the game that we didn’t make.
“We’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to do what we think is best to win the game. I thought that was best to try to win the game right there. It didn’t work.”
The Steelers proceeded to drive 97 yards in 16 plays and over eight minutes to score the winning touchdown on a 1-yard pass to fullback Will Johnson with 4:46 remaining.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger added another touchdown pass a couple minutes later for the clinching score after Stafford threw an interception.
The Lions’ defense had chances to stop the go-ahead scoring drive, but Roethlisberger converted a third-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 4-yard line and also a fourth-and-2 in Detroit territory.
“We had a lot of confidence in our defense,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got to be able to make a stop there.”
If they had done that, the fake field goal would be easily forgotten.
But the failure of the defense leaves the coach, who was on considered on the hot seat entering the season, open to more second-guessing.
It was a move that seemed out of character for Schwartz and, for that matter, most NFL coaches.
Typically, they’re just happy to take the three points and don’t think twice.
In this case, you can admire the aggressive, play-to-win style. It beats a familiar “play not to lose” approach that is too common in sports sometimes.
But was that the right time to take a risk?
In Schwartz’s defense, you had to assume your defense wouldn’t allow the Steelers to move all the way down the field for a touchdown, which is what was needed in a four-point game.
The Lions seemed to be in cruise control a little bit throughout the second half, which can be dangerous and often lead to a loss in the end. They had a chance to lock up their third straight road victory with a touchdown right there to take a two-score lead and the coach went for it.
The coaching staff obviously saw something on tape that convinced them Martin, who had never run a fake like that in his life, could get the five yards that were needed.
Would you rather risk losing by being aggressive? Or take the obvious, safer route?
The problem here is that momentum can be such a huge element in football, and that play definitely picked up the Steelers, along with the third-down conversion from deep in their territory.
From those two moments on, it was Steelers’ game to steal and they snatched it from the Lions.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the game was the one-quarter dominance by Detroit’s offense and its disappearing act the rest of the time.
The Lions did all of their scoring in the second quarter, including three touchdowns in about 8 ½ minutes.
“It’s unreasonable to think we could play that way over 60 minutes,” Schwartz said. “It might be a hundred to nothing if we did that.”
Stafford passed for 267 yards in the quarter, including five completions to receiver Calvin Johnson for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
In the second half, it was an inexplicably different story. Stafford completed only 3-of-16 passes for 35 yards, none to Johnson.
Blame the coach for his game-turning decision, but the offense needs to show up for more than 15 minutes and the defense can’t let a team drive the length of the field with the game on the line.
It’s going to be a very long week for the Lions (6-4) before the get a chance to make up for it next Sunday at home against the suddenly-revived Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
EXTRA POINTS — Johnson’s first score was not only was Stafford’s 100th career touchdown pass but it also moved the fifth-year quarterback past Bobby Layne as Detroit’s all-time passing leader. Layne threw for 15,710 yards from 1950-58. Stafford now has 16,005 yards.
— Johnson became the first player in Lions’ history with 1,000 receiving yards in five seasons. His 11 touchdowns this year are six more than he had all last season.
— The Lions went with Joique Bell at running back much of the time after Reggie Bush fumbled in the second quarter. Bell was very productive before aggravating an ankle injury.
— Safety Glover Quin also sustained an ankle injury that knocked him out of the game in the second half.
— Defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah worked out on the field before the game to test his sprained left ankle, but was inactive for the second straight game.
Ansah appears to be getting closer, though, so barring a setback he seems likely to return either next Sunday or on Thanksgiving against Green Bay.