A bizarre series of events, some of which has been the ineptness of their opponents, carried the Detroit Lions to an improbable victory for the second straight week.
How do you explain it?
"Maybe this is their year," FOX analyst Jimmy Johnson, the former Dallas Cowboys’ coach, said Sunday after the Lions rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons, 22-21, at Wembley Stadium in London, England.
The Lions have been on the other end of these types of heartbreakers over the years. These days, they’re the ones breaking hearts.
It took some crazy good fortune at the end for the Lions to pull it off. It appeared they had lost the game when Matt Prater missed a 43-yard field goal, but a delay-of-game penalty on his own team gave Prater another chance.
He moved back five yards and nailed the 48-yarder as time expired to give the Lions a 6-2 record as they reach the halfway point in the season.
It was the third field goal of the game for Prater, who got released by the Denver Broncos while suspended for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and signed with the Lions less than three weeks ago.
He’s the third kicker this year for Detroit, which was 6-for-16 on field-goal attempts in its first seven games.
"We were due," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said of the winning kick, before breaking out in laughter, during his post-game radio interview.
For the Falcons, this was a totally demoralizing loss because they appeared to have fought off the Lions’ second-half comeback bid and were going to win it.
Atlanta had the ball in Detroit territory at the two-minute warning, but a holding penalty against the Falcons totally altered how the game would play out. The Lions declined the penalty after a 1-yard loss on the play, but the clock stopped because of the penalty. Julio Jones then dropped a short pass on the next play that again stopped the clock when the Lions had no timeouts.
That meant the Lions would get the ball back, albeit at their 7-yard line, with 1:38 remaining instead of with 30 seconds or so if the clock hadn’t stopped both times.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford then completed passes of 32 yards to Golden Tate, 20 yards on a brilliant catch by Theo Riddick and 10 yards to Jeremy Ross to give the Lions a chance. A defensive holding penalty also helped move them into a little better position for Prater.
"They did what it took to get us in position to win," Caldwell said of the offense. "That was a heck of a drive. No timeouts. Moving the ball down the field from our own (7)-yard line and getting us into field-goal range was a heck of a job."
While the second half was all Lions, the first half was just the opposite. The Falcons (2-6) dominated as much early as the Lions did late.
The first half, in fact, was alarming for Detroit.
The Lions had allowed a combined total of 10 points in the first quarter of their first seven games, including zero in the last three. The Falcons, however, went to work early and often, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives.
Detroit’s defensive line appeared to have a significant advantage going into the game, facing a depleted offensive line that had giving up sacks at an alarming rate of late, but the Falcons were able to protect quarterback Matt Ryan effectively in the beginning, giving up no sacks in the first half.
The Lions’ rotation up front was affected from the start by the loss of reserve defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, who was suspended for a violation of team rules and sent home from London early.
It only got worse when starting defensive tackle Nick Fairley injured his right leg early in the second quarter when he collided with teammate Ndamukong Suh while rushing the passer.
Ryan ended up completing 14-of-17 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Falcons to a 21-0 halftime lead.
The early deficit was substantial for the Lions because they were without several playmakers on offense, including receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Reggie Bush and their top three tight ends, along with starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
The Lions’ defense came to life and played like it had for most of the season. A couple key plays actually started to turn the game, just like they did last Sunday when the Lions rallied for a 13-point deficit in the final four minutes.
This time, a brutal play by the Atlanta secondary resulted in a 59-yard touchdown reception by Tate on a third-and-25 play. Ryan then had a total brain cramp when he panicked and threw a pass nowhere near any of his receivers that was intercepted by cornerback Cassius Vaughn, leading to a field goal to quickly cut the lead to 21-13 with 14:10 remaining.
The Lions scored again on a 4-yard pass to running back Theo Riddick with less than four minutes to go, but they failed to tie the score with a two-point conversion on an incomplete pass. Tate argued that he got held on the play, which replays confirmed, but he didn’t get the call.
The Falcons then had a chance to shut the door, and they appeared to be doing just that, before a holding penalty and dropped pass stopped the clock and gave the Lions just enough time.
Message to the NFL: Don’t give the Lions extra chances. Not this year.
"Pretty special group of guys," Caldwell said. "We didn’t play well in the first half. Everybody knew that. The scoreboard was quite telling.
"But they came out in the second half determined to play the way we know how to play. I’m proud of that defense.
"It’s all part of the journey. Every game has its own ups and downs. If you can win in a number of different ways, that bodes well for the future. In this league, teams are so good, you can’t win the same way each and every week."
The Lions, unquestionably, are finding different ways, including stealing one-point victories in both of these last two games. They hit the midway point assured of being in first place in the NFC North, while now having an extra week before they play again.
The trip back home from overseas — not to mention the bye — were sure to be much better after snatching another victory in the final seconds.
"Those six hours will be full of pleasantries," Caldwell said of the plane ride. "The break comes at a great time. Hopefully, we can get some guys healed up and back to start the second half of the season."
— Caldwell, on Fairley’s injury: "He’s walking around on crutches, so you know it’s not great. We’ll see."
— Stafford became the team’s all-time leader in touchdown passes when he connected with Tate for his 119th career TD, one more than legendary Lion Bobby Layne.
— With Johnson out, Tate had another big day, catching seven passes for 151 yards.