One minute he was strutting around the end zone, staring into the stands, the look of a stone-cold killer in his eyes. The next, Golden Tate was tossing his helmet to the ground in a fit of frustration, stunned – like most everyone else in Ford Field – at what he’d just heard.
The Detroit Lions had a win stolen from them in the cruelest of fashions Sunday, when Matthew Stafford appeared to throw the game-winning touchdown pass to Tate with 8 seconds left, only to have the score overturned on replay and the game ended by a mandatory 10-second clock runoff.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the replay decision was correct – Tate was touched on the back of his shoulder by Atlanta Falcons safety Brian Poole as his knee hit the ground with the ball inches short of the goal line – and officials applied the runoff properly, too.
But that didn’t make the sting of a 30-26 loss to the defending NFC champions any less agonizing for a Lions team that once again was on the wrong end of an innocuous rule.
“Real tough,” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “Never saw one like that.”
“It’s crazy,” added defensive tackle Akeem Spence. “It’s just, it sucked the life out of me because I was up there jumping up cheering, our offense scored the game-winning drive and just to lose it like that on a 10-second runoff. Not knowing the rule is kind of, ‘Ah, that sucks.’ But I mean, the rules are the rules.”
The Falcons, the only undefeated team left in the NFC, led the entire game Sunday. They scored the first 10 points and led 17-3 late in the second quarter, but the Lions' opportunistic defense intercepted three Matt Ryan passes and gave them three late chances to win.
The Lions went three-and-out on their first two of those drives, before driving the ball to the brink of the end zone on the game's final 11-play, 85-yard, penalty-filled possession.
Stafford completed a pass to Marvin Jones at the 2-yard line with just over a minute to play, but that gain was called back on a holding penalty by fill-in offensive guard Zac Kerin.
Stuck in a hopeless second-and-30 after another penalty, the Lions picked up a first down on a questionable defensive holding penalty, then Jones drew a pass-interference flag in the end zone on a third-and-10 play with 19 seconds left.
Stafford threw incomplete to Theo Riddick on first-and-goal from the 1, and incomplete to Kenny Golladay a play later to set up the dramatic final sequence.
Tate, lined up as the third receiver to left of the formation, ran a simple drag route across the goal line using Golladay as a pick.
Stafford rifled a pass to Tate, who lunged for the ball, and on first glance appeared to catch it and land in the end zone.
“Immediately after the play I didn’t think anything of it,” Tate, who was not available in the locker room after the game, told WJBK-TV. “I thought touchdown, you know, touchdown, and that was it. After I (heard) their review and I thought obviously, there’s something they’re looking at. And then after watching a few times I thought it could go either way.
“I didn’t personally find out about the 10-second runoff until I was actually speaking to the referees and then they brought it to my knowledge. And that’s when I was kind of like, ‘OK, this could be interesting, we’ll see.’ But tough, man. It’s a tough way to lose.”
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Replays showed Tate was touched down with about 10 seconds to play.
Both Caldwell and Falcons safety Keanu Neal said that would have been plenty of time to get a final fourth-and-goal play off from inside the 1-yard line had the 10-second runoff not been in place.
“Certainly,” Caldwell said. “We practice it all the time.”
But rather than have one last chance at an upset, the Lions were left baffled and bewildered by what happened.
Stafford, who finished 25-for-45 passing for 264 yards and one touchdown, said he knew the runoff rule – in the case of a play stoppage late in the game where there’s a running clock situation, 10 seconds is run off the clock unless the team has a time-out to spare – but at first didn’t think it was applicable in that situation.
“It’s not fun (to lose like that),” Stafford said. “Obviously, wish I would’ve thrown it a foot higher, maybe help G.T. stay up. It’s a game of inches. Tough one to lose. Great effort from our team, awesome effort from our defense. Offense, we got to convert a little bit more on third downs early and when our defense gets us turnovers we got to put some points on the board.”
The Lions intercepted three Ryan passes and, despite the loss, confirmed their place as a legitimate contender in the NFC.
Quin returned one of the picks 37 yards for a touchdown, but the Lions (2-1) settled for four field goals against a Falcons defense that played without its best pass rusher in Vic Beasley, and had no answer for a running game that amassed 151 yards.
Ryan finished 24-for-35 passing for 294 yards and two touchdowns, and Devonta Freeman had 106 yards rushing on 21 carries for the Falcons.
Matt Prater made kicks of 55, 40, 35 and 57 yards for the Lions, who visit the Minnesota Vikings - one of three 2-1 teams in the NFC North - next week.
“We’re judged by wins and losses,” Stafford said, renouncing suggestions of a moral Lions victory. “Obviously, everybody knows that. But man, it could’ve been a way different game. We had opportunities and we just didn’t capitalize. Too many field goals for us, not enough touchdowns and ultimately, not a touchdown at the end. If we get that, this is a whole different session.”