Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions have led in the fourth quarter in 22 of the 38 games he’s coached with the franchise.
Being competitive hasn’t been his issue more weeks than not. Losing 11 of those games in which he led has.
That’s why Sunday’s narrow escape against against the Atlanta Falcons was so big for Patricia. Losing it would have compounded his already flawed reputation as he tries to stave off the hot seat that has been preheating for some time now.
The Lions were up 16-14, and losing the lead late was actually the best trump card Patricia had — a next-day reprise of Saturday’s epic Indiana-Penn State game — if he wanted to prevent another tough loss on his résumé.
Todd Gurley scored from 10 yards out with 1:04 left and Detroit out of timeouts, actually helping the Lions’ chances of winning the game. It appears that Patricia wisely instructed his defense to let Gurley score. But the ensuing two-point conversion made it 22-16, Atlanta.
Matthew Stafford did everything he could to rally the embattled Lions. He threaded completions of 13, 22 and 32 yards, without the benefit of a timeout and gave Detroit one more crack at a win.
Stafford bought time amid a good Atlanta pass rush on the final play, pump faked and hit T.J. Hockenson for the tying score as the clock expired.
The extra point was a mini-drama of its own, as a Danny Amendola unsportsmanlike conduct penalty made the try 15 yards longer. But Matt Prater, who had missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt earlier in the game, converted 47-yard XP for the win.
Stafford was outstanding. The defense made several key stops when it badly needed them. Kenny Golladay, who caught the penultimate pass that made the winner possible, had a huge game with six grabs — a few of them spectacular — for 114 yards.
Patricia can rightfully claim that his fourth-quarter strategy, telling his defense to let Gurley score, helped his team win. You can’t overlook that part of it for a coach whose in-game decisions can range from confusing to maddening.
This was not a Lions collapse like the 17-point blown lead against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 or the 18-point blown lead against the Arizona Cardinals last season.
It was a hard-earned but — no cap — a pretty ugly win. It required Gurley to forget what was happening in the game. It bailed out a Lions defense that had allowed Falcons drives of 79, 98, 81 and 76 yards in the final 43 minutes of the game.
There’s still plenty to gripe about with the Lions. After D’Andre Swift’s breakout last week and early touchdown in this game, his usage was sparse and odd. Slamming the shifty Swift into the line on first and second downs was not what the scouting gods had in mind when he entered the draft last spring.
This also goes down as an absolutely-had-to-have-it victory, coming against a Falcons team that set NFL records for creative losses this season that even the Lions had to tip their cap at.
Patricia is now coaching a 3-3 Lions team, albeit one that has been outscored on the season and has a lot of work to do. Even with the Minnesota Vikings having a nightmare season, both the 5-1 Chicago Bears and 5-1 Green Bay Packers are two games up in the NFC North with head-to-head wins against Detroit on their record.
Winning three out of four is a nice start. But Patricia and the Lions also must realize that most teams going forward aren’t going to be so giving to their cause.
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