Instant observations: Lions’ winning streak ends in heartbreaker against Bills

13 days ago

DETROIT -- So close. So close to their fourth straight win. So close to proving their comeback is for real against one of the best teams in the league. So close to turning the playoff talk into an actual run at the postseason for the first time since the last time they won four straight so many years ago.

So close.

But not quite.

Lions kicker Michael Badgley knocked in a 51-yard field goal to tie up the game with 28 seconds left, but Bills All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen threaded a 37-yard pass between safeties Kerby Joseph and DeShon Elliott on the ensuing drive, and Stefon Diggs held on to set up a 45-yard game-winning kick with 2 seconds left.

Bills 28, Lions 25.

The loss snaps a three-game winning streak for the Lions (4-7), a midseason surge that had propelled the team from the worst record in the league to within two games of the playoff chase. They hung tough against a Super Bowl contender too, which itself demonstrates real progress. This is the same team that once went nearly 20 defensive series without forcing a punt. The same team that once scored 45 points on this field, and still lost to Seattle. On Sunday, they gave Buffalo all they could handle, including leading for most of the second half after DJ Chark hauled in a 1-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal.

But Allen proved to be too much for a defense that remains deficient on personnel at full strength, and was playing very far from full strength. Top cornerback Jeff Okudah didn’t play at all, then Jerry Jacobs left the game in the fourth quarter too.

The Bills drove 82 yards back the other way, aided in part by a roughing the passer penalty by Austin Bryant, and Allen used the new life to find Stefon Diggs working Mike Hughes on a crossing pattern at the goal line. Allen hit him between the numbers, and Buffalo had a 25-22 lead with just 2:44 left.

But the Lions weren’t done yet. Jared Goff opened the ensuing series by hitting D’Andre Swift for a 14-yard pass down the left sideline, and Amon-Ra St. Brown added another chunk play to get Detroit to Buffalo’s 33-yard line. Facing a third-and-1, the Lions decided to air out the football for the goal line. DJ Chark had a step on his man too, and waved his hand in the air for the football. But Goff put the ball too far toward the goal line, and the pass fell incomplete.

Detroit settled for a game-tying field-goal try instead. Badgley -- who missed a 29-yarder earlier in the game -- snuck a 51-yarder inside the right upright to force the tie with just 23 seconds remaining.

But Allen fired a missile to Diggs between the safeties on the next play from scrimmage, and Tyler Bass trotted onto the field to break the heart of a raucous crowd of more than 66,000.

The Lions were close, and that’s progress.

But that won’t make this one hurt any less.

Let’s get to some instant observations:

-- Jamaal Williams pounded in his 13th touchdown of the season, tops in the league, and finished with a team-high 66 yards. Amon-Ra St. Brown continued to do Amon-Ra St. Brown things, catching nine of 10 targets for 122 yards and one touchdown, which came on a fourth-and-goal right before halftime. The usual suspects continued to roll, and this week they got help from a resurgent DJ Chark, who caught his first passes since Week 3, one of which scored a touchdown, and D’Andre Swift, who made several critical plays during the comeback. More of that, and Swift should get more of the timeshare in the backfield.

-- Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said just last week that rookie James Houston was coming. Kind of felt like coachspeak at the time because the sixth-round pick hadn’t even appeared in a game while spending the duration of the season on the practice squad. But for the club’s biggest game of the season, on the biggest stage too, the Lions elevated Houston for his NFL debut. And what a debut it was. Houston pounced on a Kalif Raymond fumble on punt return, helping Detroit avoid a potential disaster, before sacking Josh Allen on third down in the closing seconds of the second quarter and then doing it again in the third quarter. With that, Houston becomes the first player in team history with multiple sacks in his NFL debut. That’s one way to make an entrance. Here’s betting Houston -- the 217th overall pick in the draft -- is not long for the practice squad.

-- DJ Chark returned last week. Josh Reynolds returned this week. And if pregame warmups were any indication, Jameson Williams’ return could occur as soon as next week against Jacksonville, or certainly Minnesota after that. The first-round pick began practicing this week, and spent about 30 minutes running routes on Thursday morning at Ford Field. He was running those routes against air, so not much to report other than whew that kid is fast. It’s important to set expectations accordingly because he is, after all, a rookie coming off an 11-month layoff. But I’ve covered this team for 10 years and never seen someone run like that in a Lions uniform. Speed like that is always useful.

-- Give Aaron Glenn for finding some midseason solutions for his league-worst defense. Which remains the league worst because things were so bad early, although they’ve made significant progress in recent weeks. That being said, man, they still have some glaring personnel deficiencies that must be addressed. That includes at cornerback, where Will Harris simply is not slot. He allowed 22 of the last 26 passes thrown his way to be completed coming into this game, then just got flat burnt for the Bills’ first touchdown of the day.

-- The Lions are deficient at linebacker too, and it seems like upgrades are imminent in 2023. But credit where it’s due. Alex Anzalone hasn’t always been good, he’s often been bad, he was especially bad on a couple plays against Josh Allen -- but then again, who doesn’t look bad against that guy once in a while? And Anzalone made up for it in a big way, intercepting a pass for the goal line in the third quarter. That’s the fourth time Detroit has picked off a pass inside its own 5-yard line in the last four games, a huge reason their defense has been able to bend but not break during their midseason surge.

-- Julian Okwara, one of the heroes from the win in Chicago -- finally bringing down Justin Fields on a final fourth-down play -- suffered a potentially serious arm injury against Buffalo. He left the field holding his right elbow and did not return, dealing yet another blow to a Lions pass rush that simply has not been good enough. The injuries don’t help, either. Fellow pass rushers Charles Harris (groin) and Josh Paschal (knee) didn’t play at all.

-- Michael Badgley has stabilized Detroit’s awful field-goal unit, making his first six attempts since joining the team last month. But with a chance to end Buffalo’s 19-7 scoring run in the third quarter, he missed a gimme from 29 yards, a huge blow for a team that trying to hang on against one of the league’s best.

-- On the bright side for the special teams, Kalif Raymond delivered maybe the best return of his two years here, dodging two would-be tacklers immediately after fielding a third-quarter punt, then one more as he sprinted 41 yards downfield. That helped swing momentum and field position back in Detroit’s favor after the failed kick, and Goff turned it into eight points with a dart to DJ Chark in the end zone on third-and-goal. That gave Detroit a 22-19 lead with 13:47 left.

-- When the defense got off to a tough start last year, coordinator Aaron Glenn buried the game tape. After this one, emergency guards Dan Skipper and Kayode Awosika may want to consider just burning the tape. Skipper is an offensive tackle and Awosika had never started an NFL game before, but both were forced into the lineup because of injuries to Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jonah Jackson, Tommy Kraemer and Evan Brown. So the Lions had to reach deep onto their bench, and Buffalo pummeled them, especially Ed Oliver. That includes for a safety in the third quarter.

-- The Lions have now lost six straight games on Thanksgiving, and stand 37-44-2 all-time on the holiday. They’ve been playing on the holiday since 1934, when G.A. Richards had just bought the professional football team in Portsmouth and moved them to Detroit. Richards was looking to drum up interest in his new team, and scheduled a Thanksgiving matchup with Chicago. Detroit lost 19-16 that day in front of 26,000 fans at the University of Detroit Stadium. The Lions have proceeded to play on Thanksgiving every year since, with the only exceptions coming in 1939-44, when games were paused for World War II.

-- According to the advanced analytics, the Lions served 3,500 pounds of turkey on Thursday at Ford Field. There were also about 3,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, 100 gallons of gravy, 2,000 pounds of stuffing, 700 pounds of green beans and 3,5000 slices of pie. For the record: Pecan pie

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