A look back to a key moment from the 2011 season, where the Detroit Lions relied on goal line chaos and a lucky no-call to stay alive in the playoff race.
Detroit went into free agency like Lions and are coming out like lambs, with no significant moves past day one of the signing period. To pass the time between now and the draft, and go back to a favorite series of mine, with a few “Remember that time…” posts to relive some of the more unusual moments in recent franchise history.
This one involves a key divisional game late in the 2011 season, where a playoff-bound Detroit Lions team survived a near-meltdown and came up with a thoroughly unconvincing goal line stand on the final play of the game.
Losers of five out of seven after a 5-0 start, concerns of a monumental Lions collapse were building going into this Week 14 matchup. Ndamukong Suh was still suspended after he stomped on a Packers offensive lineman on Thanksgiving. This gimme home game against the 2-10 Vikings (with prime Adrian Peterson out with an injury and awful-beyond-words Christian Ponder at QB) may as well have been a “must win”, as Detroit looked to hold playoff positioning and end a postseason drought of more than a decade.
The Lions took a seemingly insurmountable first half lead, reversing the season-long trend of massive second half comebacks. 2011 after all, was the year the Lions fell behind 24-7 against Carolina, 24-0 against Dallas, and 20-0 the first time at Minnesota, all eventual wins.
A hungry defense, paired with an abysmal game from Christian Ponder (he threw three picks, fumbled twice, and had three more near-picks that were dropped before finally getting yanked) gave the Lions a 21-0 cushion only ten minutes into the game.
For a little more time-context on this game, this was before Brandon Pettigrew got the yips, and when Titus Young Sr. was putting up rookie numbers on par with those of both Calvin Johnson and Kenny Golladay. Both had touchdown catches, and two defensive scores plus a Jason Hanson field goal made the score 31-14 at the half.
Maybe it was as simple as the Lions letting up, maybe it was as simple as Joe Webb replacing Ponder, but the second half was a slow burn where the Vikings inched closer and closer while the disinterested Detroit offense stalled. Webb turned a collapsed pocket into a 65 yard touchdown scramble. Helped by a 4th down conversion near the red zone, Webb found Toby Gerhart in the end zone a few plays later. A Jason Hanson field goal provided Detroit’s only points of the second half.
Now only trailing 34-28, Minnesota got the ball back for one final drive with about three minutes left. Starting from their own 20, Webb and the Vikings converted twice more on do-or-die 4th downs, surviving yet another dropped interception as they drove the length of the field. Another scramble by Webb moved the ball near the goal line, and a soul-crushing final touchdown appeared more and more inevitable.
The “Goal Line Stand”
With nine seconds left, Minnesota had first and goal from the one, presumably with two or three plays to steal the game and rip the hearts out of Lions fans. Either a hard run fake to set up a wide open tight end or a bootleg to get Webb to the pylon probably would have done the trick.
Webb took the snap and instead looked for rookie Kyle Rudolph on a fade route. When it was covered, he pulled the ball down and began to scramble. The following sequence is what makes this play so bizarrely memorable:
- DeAndre Levy commits a blatantly obvious face mask penalty, the referees somehow miss it
- As he reaches for Webb’s face mask and then yanks it, Levy also happens to knock the ball loose
- In the scrum that follows, the ball gets knocked around so many times that it ends up all the way back past midfield
- The clock expires, Cliff Avril falls on the ball nearly 60 yards from where the play began, Lions win. Game saved, season saved.
Spurred on by the new lease on the season, the Lions came back from a 27-14 deficit in the 4th quarter to beat Oakland the following week, then came back to Ford Field to pummel the Chargers on Christmas Eve. A 23-year-old Matthew Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards along with 41 TDs, and the 10-6 Lions clinched the franchise’s first playoff spot since 1999.