Ravens’ Justin Tucker delivers latest ‘kick to the stomach’ for long-suffering Lions
DETROIT — In the rafters above Ford Field, split on the field by the 50-yard stripe from which Justin Tucker actually stepped back for his game-winning kick in the closing seconds Monday, hang the Detroit Lions’ championship banners. They honor the franchise’s title teams from 1935, 1952, 1953 and 1957.
On nights like these, when the Lions almost inevitably choose the wrong path at the fork in the road, those banners are more a mocking reminder of glories past than they are celebratory.
Armed with a chance to take a step closer towards winning a division title for the first time in two decades, the Lions lost in a way that was at once confounding and commonplace. The Ravens did not score a touchdown in this game, then essentially settled for that do-or-die, low-percentage field goal from their own end of the field.
But teams like the Lions do not build up such a tortured existence by blocking those tries or watching them sail wide. Tucker, who entered Monday with 27 consecutive field-goal makes, managed to get enough height on his kick to clear the line, as a few Detroit fans behind the goal posts hopefully signaled that it was short.
The rest knew otherwise.
Tucker’s 61-yard kick crept over the crossbar to give Baltimore an 18-16 lead, then Matthew Stafford threw an interception on Detroit’s next snap to seal it.
“It was a nice little kick to the stomach,” Detroit safety Glover Quin said.
The defending champs are very much alive. And the Lions are almost certainly headed back to the drawing board again, with coach Jim Schwartz’s future looking less certain than ever.
“We had everything in front of us to keep control [of the division lead],” running back Reggie Bush said inside a devastated Detroit locker room. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We did not go take it, didn’t go get it.”
The Lions nearly pulled out a needed win in spite of themselves, with Stafford hitting Joseph Fauria for a 14-yard touchdown and one-point lead with just over two minutes to go. But Calvin Johnson, capping a night that saw him drop two wide-open passes and have a third skip off his fingers, could not keep himself inbounds as he turned to nab a subsequent two-point attempt.
That miscue left the door open for the Ravens to reclaim the lead. They did so only after Joe Flacco found Jacoby Jones on a third-and-15, silencing a roaring crowd. Jones took the ball to the Detroit 45 on his catch.
Baltimore gained just two more yards before giving Tucker a shot.
“It’s tough for them,” Ravens offensive lineman Marshal Yanda said of the Lions. “They played well, right at the end scored to take the lead, but it’s the NFL … golly, you’ve gotta have the ball right at the last second. You’ve got to make plays and stay locked in.”
Over and over again in recent weeks — and throughout, oh, the past 40 years — the Lions have been unable to do that. When this latest crushing defeat concluded, the refrains were all too familiar for those players who have been here.
“I think some of the stuff that happened to us was self-inflicted,” Stafford said.
Then, Quin: “I think we know we’re a good team, we’ve got to go out there and do it, and not wait for someone to mess it up or wait for someone to make a play.”
And Calvin Johnson: “We just didn’t make the plays that were there for us to make. We just let them get away.”
The Lions still have hope of creeping back atop the NFC North when all is said and done, but it’s a long shot, far from the stranglehold they took by finishing off a sweep of the Bears five weeks ago. Since then, with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler sidelined, Detroit has gone 1-4.
Now, barring a 2-0 finish and some help — the Lions need the Bears and Packers, who play in Week 17, to each lose once over the next two Sundays — Schwartz may be handed his walking papers.
“The only assurance is we have two games to play, and we’re one down in the division,” said Schwartz when asked about his job security. “That’s the only thing we need to worry about, only thing we need to concern ourselves with.”
Baltimore has a much more encouraging situation in front of it. With their dramatic victory in Motown and the Bengals’ loss on Sunday night, the Ravens now control their destiny in the AFC North. Beat New England next week and Cincinnati in Week 17, and they’ll take the division title.
For a team once 3-5 this season, that’s a remarkable reversal of fortune.
The Lions can only dream of such a rags-to-riches success story. All the positive vibes surrounding their rebuilding, sparked by a surprising playoff berth in 2011, have vanished amid another unimaginable collapse.
“Yeah, this one hurts,” said Lions center Dominic Raiola. “Right now it hurts, but we have to find a way to bounce back. Like I said, you don’t know what’s going to happen Sunday.”
The 64,000 or so Detroit faithful who packed this place might beg to differ. Few things have become as certain in the unpredictable NFL as the Lions’ penchant for heartbreak.