Atlanta — At this point, it’s safe to call it a trend. When the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons get together, you can count on a wild finish.
Sunday was no exception as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford led a 75-yard touchdown in the game’s final minute, connecting with tight end T.J. Hockenson as time expired to send the Lions past the Falcons, 23-22, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“All you ask for on offense is a chance,” Stafford said. “Guys made plays. I love doing that. That’s my favorite part about playing the game. I love this game, I love competing and there is no more competitive, pressure-packed situation than whatever it was — first-and-goal from the 9-yard line with no time left. That’s what you live for as a quarterback.”
Equally amazing, the Lions never would have had the chance if not for a blunder by the Falcons on the previous possession.
With a chance to run out the clock and kick a game-winning, chip-shot field goal, Falcons running back Todd Gurley stumbled into the end zone when trying to get down short of the goal line.
“It’s tough,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s a tough position as a player. When you’re lowering your pads and the momentum of trying to get yards is there, that’s a difficult spot to be in. It’s just a disappointing way for that game to end.”
The heart-stopping finish also brought back memories of the last time the two teams met in 2017, when the Lions lost after a 10-second runoff following a replay review abruptly ended the game.
Similarly in this one, a 29-yard pass to Kenny Golladay was reviewed in the closing seconds, but the Lions were able to line up and spike the ball with two seconds remaining after the catch was confirmed.
As Al Riveron, the league’s vice president of officiating, explained after the game, the play would have only been subject to a runoff had the call on the field been changed — say from an incompletion to a catch.
Still, in the heat of the moment, multiple players admitted they were concerned about being done in by the rule once again.
“When I snapped the ball to spike it the first time, Kerryon (Johnson) was like, sliding behind me,” Stafford said. “I had no idea what was going on. I thought right there, ‘Oh, he apparently fell down or something. I don’t know what happened, 10-second run off, game over.’ All sorts of craziness ensued. I was just happy that they gave us, rightfully so, another chance. We spiked it and then dialed something up that worked, was able to buy us a little extra time and shoot one to Hock for a touchdown.”
The offensive fireworks were surprisingly held until the end. On paper, the ingredients were in place for a shootout. Instead, the two teams got off to a slow start, with one first down and a trio of punts on the first three series.
The Lions managed to find their footing first as Stafford started the team’s second possession with a pair of chunk gains to Hockenson and wide receiver Marvin Jones. Handing the ball off to rookie runner D’Andre Swift on three straight snaps netted 24 more yards and put the Lions into the red zone, where a Falcons’ mistake set up the game’s first touchdown.
On third down, Stafford had to tuck the ball and step up in his pocket to avoid pressure, but as he reset to throw, he took a big hit from cornerback A.J. Terrell. The officiating crew ruled Terrell launched himself into the quarterback, a 15-yard infraction that set the Lions up first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, where Swift punched it in on the next snap.
After another exchange of punts, the Falcons put together a 13-play, 89-yard response.
Converting a fourth down near midfield early in the second quarter to keep the series alive, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley made a difficult catch along the sideline for 19 yards before drawing a defensive pass interference call in the end zone while working against rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah. That set up Gurley to power it across the goal line to tie the game at 7 with 10:55 left in the half.
The Lions were poised to counterpunch, driving deep into Falcons territory before losing steam inside the 10-yard line. Aggressively, the team opted to go for it when faced with fourth-and-2, but the play call backfired and running back Adrian Peterson was stuffed short by Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler.
Not deterred by taking over in the shadow of their own goal line, the Falcons went coast to coast to take their first lead of the contest. Ridley continued to prove problematic for the Detroit secondary, hauling in a 27-yard pass on third down to extend the possession. He would then cap the 14-play drive with a 4-yard touchdown grab, coming wide open across the middle after the Lions lost him coming out of a bunch coverage to the left.
Taking over with 29 seconds remaining before halftime, Stafford connected on three throws for 48 yards, allowing Matt Prater to drill a 50-yard field goal as time expired and cut the Falcons’ lead to 14-10 at the break.
Blunders plagued the Lions to start the third quarter, but the offense was able to overcome a pair of sacks and a holding call that negated a 24-yard Swift run to further cut into the Falcons’ lead. This time Prater knocked it through from 51 yards out, making it 14-13 at the 7:34 mark.
Again, the two offenses briefly sputtered and exchanged punts, with Lions punter Jack Fox pinning the Falcons at their 6-yard line. From deep in their own territory, the home team sought to break the will of the Lions with a third lengthy touchdown drive.
Chewing up yards with relative ease, the Falcons worked into the red zone before they were faced with fourth-and-5 from the 13. Instead of extending their advantage to four with 12 minutes to go, they went for it, only to see defensive end Trey Flowers drop into coverage and break up a throw intended for running back Ito Smith.
The Lions proceeded to drive into Falcons territory before appearing to stall out when Peterson was stuffed on third-and-short. But the Lions successfully challenged that the Falcons had 12 defenders on the field, netting a fresh set of downs.
That led to a 46-yard attempt by Prater for the lead, but the longtime clutch kicker sent his boot slicing wide right, preserving Atlanta’s lead.
But as they had much of the afternoon, Detroit’s defense stepped up and forced the game’s first turnover. Defensive end Romeo Okwara was able to chop the ball free from the grasp of Ryan and Flowers jumped on the loose ball, giving the ball back to the Lions offense inside Falcons territory.
“I knew I had to make a play,” Okwara said. “Thankfully I was able to get around the edge and force a turnover there. That definitely felt really good and gave us an opportunity to win.”
Unfortunately, Detroit’s possession didn’t go anywhere, but Prater rebounded from 49 yards out to put the Lions back on top, 16-14, with 3:16 remaining.
Ryan completed five consecutive passes for 55 yards to put Atlanta in scoring position before the Lions all but let Gurley score from 10 yards out with 1:04 remaining. A successful 2-point conversion made it 22-16.
After the Hockenson touchdown, the Lions were flagged for excessive celebration, leaving Prater with a 48-yard PAT attempt to seal the victory.
Stafford finished 25-of-36 passing for 340 yards and the touchdown to Hockenson. Golladay paced the Lions’ receivers with six catches for 114 yards.
The win moves the Lions to 3-3 on the season. They’ll return home to play the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, looking to climb above .500 for the first time this year. The Falcons fell to 1-6 with the loss.