DETROIT – The Cowboys have as much trouble staying above .500 as they do containing Calvin Johnson.
One stunning 50-second, game-winning drive by the Lions ended in a quarterback sneak for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining, bringing the Cowboys right back to the .500 mark they can't seem to avoid in a 31-30 loss.
"We're not going to be in the playoffs until we win these games and don't make these mistakes," said linebacker Sean Lee, who had two interceptions in the loss. "We're going to be 8-8 and we're not going to be where we want to be. We've got to make a decision, are we going to execute at the most critical times and win these games? I don't know, but we need to put in the work and we have to do it if we're going to be the team we want to be."
A handful of Cowboys players were irate on the sideline, while most were in shock and disbelief that they let a six-point lead slip after kicking away with 1:02 on the clock and no timeouts remaining for Detroit. Going against Johnson, who compiled 14 catches for 329 yards and a touchdown on the day, it was plenty of time for the Lions to answer.
Matthew Stafford followed Bailey's third successful field goal of the night in as many tries by completing passes of 17 yards and 22 yards to Johnson, as well as a 40-yard bomb to Kris Durham in a six-play, 80-yard drive that sealed the win.
A perplexed sideline of Cowboys players couldn't believe what slipped away.
The Cowboys led by three points with 1:24 remaining when they started one of their fourth-quarter drives. Just 22 seconds later, after Dan Bailey's third successful field goal in as many attempts, the Lions had the ball with a chance to win and 1:02 remaining and did the rest.
That quick drive by the Cowboys came and went after two runs for negative yardage and a holding penalty on Tyron Smith that stopped the clock. The Lions declined the penalty and forced Bailey to connect.
"That is a big play in the game," said head coach Jason Garrett. "You get a holding penalty there, that stops the clock with just over one minute. We had to kick the field goal, but you would like to, in that situation, let the rest of that time go down because they used their timeouts already."
The defeat altered the course of a Cowboys season that seemed to be heading to 5-3. Instead, they dropped to 4-4 and failed to go two games above .500 for the third time this season.
It's remarkable the Lions even had a chance to win late.
The Cowboys had the ball with 3:27 left in the game when Dez Bryant, who finished with three catches for 72 yards and a touchdown, drew a pass interference call. They then went nowhere on two running plays, leading to the Lions' first timeout. Dallas decided to get a little more aggressive by passing, but Tony Romo couldn't find a target and threw it out of bounds, which stopped the clock.
Following a punt, Jason Hatcher got his first sack of the game and seventh of the season on the Lions' first play. The Cowboys' defense held and forced a turnover on downs.
It seemed at that point the Cowboys might have pulled off the victory, which would have been their second straight road win and third straight win overall. The defense couldn't have known it would be on the field again so soon, this time allowing the game-winning drive, marking a poor ending for a defensive effort that was superb through three quarters.
"It's one of the worst experiences," said Barry Church, who missed the end of the game with a hamstring injury. "Just feeling helpless as they drove down the field, it was a helpless feeling. I have to get back and I'll be back there next week."
Undrafted rookie Jeff Heath made his first start for the injured J.J. Wilcox, forcing a fumble on Reggie Bush and tracking down Johnson to prevent a touchdown after an 87-yard gain by Megatron in the first quarter. Johnson burned the Cowboys defense for receptions of 87, 54, 29 and 26 yards.
Despite all that, the Cowboys' defense still held the Lions to just seven points through the first three quarters, thanks in large part to Sean Lee, who picked off two of Stafford's passes in the second quarter. The second pick, Lee's team-leading fourth of the season, led to the Cowboys' first touchdown of the game, as Bryant hauled in a ridiculous one-handed grab that he pinned against his shoulder.
"We did a good job getting turnovers, but we struggled to stop them in the second half," Lee said. "I think there's a lot of area to obviously improve. We started the game strong, but we didn't finish it strong."
The touchdown catch came with 46 seconds remaining in the first half, yet it was just Bryant's second target of the game. His first came one play prior on an incompletion in the back of the end zone. Bryant voiced his displeasure with the offensive ineptitude several times on the sideline, as the Cowboys scored just 13 points in the first three quarters.
It appeared at that point that there would be no shootout, but the offensive fireworks had yet to come with Johnson and Bryant on the field. Johnson totaled 134 receiving yards and Bryant had a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter alone. [embedded_ad]
Terrance Williams also had a 60-yard catch and run for a score in the fourth quarter to mark his fourth straight game with a touchdown, the longest such streak in franchise history for a rookie.
But despite those big plays, late scoring drives and a plus-four turnover differential, the Cowboys went right back to .500 for the fourth time in eight games after allowing the Lions to score the final 14 points of the game.
"When you put your guts out there for three hours, collectively, sometimes it's hard to swallow those kinds of defeats," Garrett said. "What we need to do as a football team is learn from what just happened."