The Detroit Lions let a heartbreaker slip through their fingers against the Buffalo Bills. They went toe-to-toe with the NFL’s best but just couldn’t come up with the necessary play or two to close out the win.
It certainly feels like a gut punch when a win would’ve meant so much to the team and truly put them on the NFC playoff race map, but it’s also hard not to come away from this game feeling pretty good about the competitive level of this team right now. It’s a complicated feeling, no doubt, so let’s take a closer look at the game with six takeaways.
Coaching decisions both helped and limited Detroit’s chances to win
I’ve already said my peace on the third-and-1 decision to throw deep. If you want my deep thoughts on it, go here. But it’s also important to remember how the Lions got an opportunity to win the game late. Coach Dan Campbell opted to go for it on three fourth-and-1s—including an extremely bold call to do it on the team’s own 33-yard line IN THE FIRST HALF. That drive ended in a touchdown. Another fourth down was a beautifully called touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, and the last one kept Detroit’s game-tying drive alive—another clever end around to St. Brown for an easy conversion.
There were also more bad things. The Lions had an opportunity to burn more clock at the end of the first half—choosing to run a play before the two-minute warning before they had to. They gave the Bills plenty of time to score at the end of the second quarter, and they did.
Because they lost, it’s easier to focus on the bad, but they never have a shot if Campbell doesn’t go aggro in the first three quarters.
The Lions rose to the Bills’ level in this game—not Buffalo falling to Detroit’s level
It often feels when the Lions compete against a team that is clearly more talented than they are that the opponent plays down to Detroit’s level. That was not the case on Thursday, because—if anything—the Lions made more self-imposed mistakes than the Bills. Detroit missed a chip-shot field goal. Detroit took a horrible roughing the passer penalty. The Lions fumbled in Bills territory and took an avoidable sack. Despite that, they still held a lead with three minutes left.
That isn’t to say the Bills were perfectly clean, either. They turned it over in the red zone. They missed an extra point. They had a couple of drops.
But the overall point is that this was a pretty well played game by both teams. The Lions and the Bills came up with some huge plays on critical downs, and every time you were worried the game may slip away from Detroit, they battled back. And they did so with a roster depleted by injury on the offensive line, at the EDGE, and in the secondary.
What a debut for James Houston
Last week, Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard warned us:
“I’ve seen him working his freakin’ butt off,” Sheppard said. “You just ask Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker about James Houston and the looks they’re getting. Not only is he getting better, but I truly believe he’s getting those guys better. He comes to work every day and he has special tools and special traits about him that make him a gifted player.”
“There will be a place for James Houston here in the future, I believe.”
With Charles Harris and James Paschal out with an injury, Houston got his first call-up on Thanksgiving and immediately made a special teams impact by recovering a Kalif Raymond fumble, saving Detroit an early turnover. But then he made an impact on defense, helping hold the Bills to three points early in the game with a third-down sack. Marvel at the kid’s athleticism and bend here:
When Julian Okwara went down with an injury, Houston got more opportunities and ran with them, tallying another drive-ending sack.
Who knows if Houston will continue to get looks when Harris and Paschal come back—and with Romeo Okwara’s return imminent—but he proved to the Lions coaching staff that they may have a rotational pass rusher in the making here. Not bad for another late-round pick
The Lions need their starting guards back yesterday
I don’t want to drag a guy like Kayode Awosika, who was making his first career NFL start opposite former first-round pick Ed Oliver, but Detroit’s offense had to overcome a lot due to his play and that of replacement left guard Dan Skipper. Detroit had to dig themselves out of way too many holes due to runs that were blown up in the backfield. The Bills produced seven tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, held Detroit to 3.4 yards per carry, and tallied two sacks throughout the day—and it likely would’ve been worse if Von Miller hadn’t left the game.
While Goff deserves some criticism for taking the sack in the end zone, he also needs a much better performance from his left guard than this:
Dan Skipper can’t pass block. Kayode Awosika can’t pass block. Logan Stenberg can’t pass block. I’d point the finger at management for not bringing in more well-rounded players, but it’s hard to really be mad at anyone when these are a team’s OG5 and 6. Put bluntly, the Lions are not sporting NFL talent at guard right now. Get better soon, Evan Brown, Jonah Jackson, Tommy Kraemer, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Josh Allen is ridiculous
Yeah, giving up the game-winning drive in just 32 seconds is frustrating as hell. Yeah, the Lions defense could’ve played better. But, Jesus Christ, this is just a jaw-dropping throw from Josh Allen, and it’s hard to blame safety Kerby Joseph for being just late to the football. That throw had to be perfect, it had to be thrown on an absolute rope, and it was.
I’m just happy the Lions are playing entertaining football
Call me a loser accepting mediocrity. Say you’re tired of moral victories. But I was sick of watching bad football, and over the past four weeks, the Lions have played as competitive and entertaining football as anyone in the league. Even going back to the first four weeks of the season, the Lions offense has been a ton of fun to watch.
Detroit is starting to do things right and improving in a lot of areas. If you showed me this game back in June, I would have been ecstatic with the way this team is competing. I’m still feeling good about the future.