Lions prove they can hang with one of the NFL’s best, but losing still stings

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DETROIT — We knew what the Bills were. Winners. A team that entered the year with Super Bowl expectations, capable of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after years of smart drafting, savvy trades and quality free-agent additions. The Lions hope to get there. But every rebuild is different. Detroit is on a different timeline than this Bills team. None of that is new information. However, that doesn’t mean this team can’t hang with one of the best in the league. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That’s where the Lions (4-7) are right now. This team knew it could win. It expected to, even. That’s why this 28-25 loss to the Bills hurts those in the home locker room that much more.

“It should sting that we lost that game,” Dan Campbell said, “Because we had our opportunities.”

This wasn’t the Happy Thanksgiving this team hoped for entering Thursday’s game, one that puts this franchise in the national spotlight each year. It almost was. What a story that might’ve been, huh? A Lions team that was previously 1-6, went on to fire defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant and traded one of its top offensive weapons in T.J. Hockenson, inching toward a playoff spot? It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Consecutive wins over the Packers, Bears and Giants made it attainable and set up a potential statement game with the 7-3 Bills, hoping to earn their second win in five days at Ford Field. This time, in front of a crowd of 66,553 — the second-highest attended Lions game in the history of this stadium. Game on.

You could tell early what kind of game this would be. These two defenses matched three-and-outs to start. The offenses went touchdown for touchdown in the first half. Campbell made winning decisions, like going for it twice on fourth down — once from his own 33 and again from a yard out — on a 15-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 14 late in the second quarter. It set up what was sure to be a competitive football game.

Of course, that’s nothing new for these Lions. Ask the Eagles. Or the Vikings. Or the Seahawks or the Cowboys or the Dolphins. The sample size is large enough. The Lions are a tough out. That’s progress.

This team feels it.

“I think over the last four weeks, we just are such a different team, it’s such a different feel,” quarterback Jared Goff said after the game. “We know we can beat anybody. We know we can play with anybody. We know we can really dominate anybody, and that was a really good team out there. But we did a lot of good things.”

Goff is right. There was plenty of good from this game. Goff himself made some key throws against a tough Bills defense, going 23-of-37 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. Jamaal Williams scored his league-leading 13th rushing touchdown of the season. Amon-Ra St. Brown caught nine passes on 10 targets for 122 yards and a touchdown, continuing to look like one of the best young receivers in the game. DJ Chark was more involved in his second game back from injured reserve, catching his first pass since Week 3 and his second touchdown of the season. The Lions defense wasn’t perfect, but it intercepted Josh Allen in the red zone and held up about as well as expected without Jeff Okudah, Charles Harris, Josh Paschal and other key players who went down for stretches in this game, against one of the league’s better offenses.

And yet, progress can be fleeting. When the Lions grabbed a 22-19 fourth-quarter lead, anyone watching knew you had to let it play out. The Bills got the ball back and marched down the field. The Lions defense was oh-so-close to a third-and-10 attempt, getting a stop on an Allen pass intended for Stefon Diggs. Instead, a roughing-the-passer flag on Austin Bryant gave the Bills a fresh set of downs and a first-and-goal. Two plays later, Allen found his man to take the lead.

At that moment, down three with just under three to play, everything was there for a signature win. The spotlight of Thanksgiving and the national audience that comes with it. A quality opponent such as the Bills. Enough time to take the lead with a touchdown or send it into overtime. The Lions moved into Buffalo territory. The stage was set. But the margin of error was small.

“When you play a team like this, it doesn’t always have to be perfect,” Campbell said. “But, man, when you’re playing that caliber team, the margin for error, it is very minute. And every play is significant.”

Just look at that final drive for evidence of that. A second-down throw to St. Brown initially gave the Lions a first down, with Campbell running the clock down to 21 seconds before calling a timeout. A review ruled St. Brown a yard short of the first. That was the difference between a first down with options and a third-and-1 with 32 seconds to go. Not only did the Lions lose the first down, but they also lost some of those seconds Campbell hoped to burn.

Campbell said he wanted to give his offense enough time to try for the win, while also being mindful of Buffalo’s quick-hit offense. That was demonstrated on the previous play. On the very next play, the Lions took their shot at the end zone and the win.

Chark had a step or two on Bills DB Dane Jackson in man coverage. Goff looked his way. Chark kept running, but Goff tried to hit his back shoulder. Incomplete. Fourth-and-1.

“I thought it was a great play call,” St. Brown said. “DJ was open, just didn’t connect. But the play call was there. It was perfect. We knew what we were gonna get and we got it. We got man. Play call was there. We just didn’t execute.

“I wish I had thrown a different ball,” Goff said. “I thought the play call was great and had some options what to do there. And yeah, if you had to do it again, do you do something differently? I don’t know, maybe. But if I throw a better ball, it might not matter. But yeah, unfortunately, that’s going to be the play that gets focused on, but there’s a lot of plays that could have gone either way today as well.”

The Lions settled for a 51-yard Michael Badgley field goal to tie the game at 25 with 23 seconds to go. It was enough to tie the game, potentially living to see another day in overtime. But Campbell’s plan, hoping to toe the line, didn’t work. Bills ball. First play: Allen to Diggs, gain of 36. Field goal range. Ballgame.

That missed throw from Goff to Chark will be the one discussed over the next few days, and it was certainly a costly miss. But the Lions had their fair share of mistakes. Mistakes you can’t make against a team like this if you expect to win.

Williams fumbled on a promising drive that crossed into Buffalo territory. The Bills scored on the very next possession. The Lions gave up a sack in the end zone, gifting Buffalo with two points. Badgley missed a 29-yard field goal in a game the Lions lost by three at the very end. And by all accounts, everyone in the locker room was good with the third-and-1 play call on the Lions’ final offensive possession. As St. Brown said, the Lions got what they wanted. Just couldn’t hit.

The fact that the Lions can point to a few key plays as reasons they didn’t beat a Super Bowl contender are obvious signs of growth compared to last season. But they also explain why this team owns the record it does. The Lions are 1-5 in games decided by four points or fewer. It’s been a constant theme throughout the year. There’s something about being so close, yet so far, that gnaws at players. That’s the next step for Campbell’s bunch.

“Yeah, I mean, it hurt even more because we were right there,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “This isn’t the f—ing ‘same old Lions’ anymore. We’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna get our respect. And we’re going to earn that respect. We came up short today, but week in and week out, we know we’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna bring it. Those will turn into wins.”

That was the general vibe for these Lions. Mad they couldn’t get it done, still generally pleased with how they’ve played these past four weeks. “No moral victories,” as Alex Anzalone said in the locker room. Same time, athletes think differently than your typical fan watching at home. They’re already onto the next: a home game against a 3-7 Jaguars team. They’ll have 10 days of rest between games. Okudah, rookie WR Jameson Williams, DE Romeo Okwara and others could soon return. The schedule remains favorable down the stretch.

“We belong,” Campbell said. “They should know that and they do know that. They knew they had an opportunity, they earned that opportunity, and we just didn’t close it out. Those guys made the plays and it’s a credit to them over there. But I do feel growth from our team. And I feel us getting better.”

If these efforts continue, so, too, will the wins. But these ones sting in the meantime.

(Top photo of Jared Goff: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)



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