Calvin Johnson was celebrating what he thought was the go-ahead touchdown catch, a leaping grab in the end zone that would give the Detroit Lions their first road win in three years.
Instead, they lost the game. They also lost their starting quarterback.
Jay Cutler threw for 372 yards and hit Matt Forte with a late 28-yard touchdown pass, and the Bears beat the Detroit Lions 19-14 in the season opener after Johnson’s apparent touchdown catch was ruled an incompletion.
The Lions lost quarterback Matthew Stafford to a shoulder injury at the end of the first half, but were still in position to pull this one out even after they fell behind late in the game. For a few moments, it looked like they had done just that.
The Lions had second-and-10 at the 25 with 31 seconds left when Johnson outjumped Chicago’s Zackary Bowman in the end zone for what looked like a touchdown. He appeared to have gotten both feet down inbound and rolled over before letting the ball go, but what looked like a potential game-winner was ruled an incomplete pass by the officials.
Referee Gene Steratore said, “The ruling is that in order for the catch to be completed he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch.”
Johnson was “shocked” by the call, saying, “I figure if I got two feet and a knee down, to me that is a catch that’s why I got up and took off,” he said.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the officials got it right.
“The rule is if you’re going to the ground in the process of making the catch you need to finish with the football,” he said. “He didn’t finish with the football. He was (aware) he was trying to come down with it, he had one hand to keep it away from the other guy, he is trying to get his feet down and go to a knee it wasn’t like he was trying to flip it to the official or anything. That’s what it is.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith said he didn’t even see the need for the review, saying “I thought it was cut and dry.”
After two more incompletions, the Lions walked off the field with their 21st straight road loss since a win at Soldier Field in October 2007, and Schwartz certainly wasn’t about to point his finger at the referees.
“The time I stand up here and start blaming officials for a loss is the time I don’t need to be doing this anymore,” he said.
The real concern for the Lions is Stafford.
He left the game with a right shoulder injury after a blindside sack by Julius Peppers late in the first half, but the Lions led until Forte hauled in that pass from Cutler with 1:32 left. He crashed to the turf and stayed down for a few moments after making an over-the-shoulder catch along the left side in the end zone.
The Bears outgained the Lions 463-168 but were trailing for most of the day thanks to four turnovers.
“If it wasn’t turnovers, it was little things,” Cutler said. “I think all of the guys in the huddle knew it. We are on the verge of becoming I think a very good offense. We’ve got to clear some things up.”
There was also a questionable decision by Smith after Lance Briggs recovered a fumble by Shaun Hill at the Lions 1 after sacking him early in the fourth with the Bears trailing by one.
After three plays went nowhere, Smith decided to go for it on fourth down rather than have Robbie Gould kick a field goal. Forte, who had been stopped twice on the possession, got swarmed and the crowd let out loud boos.
“I felt like we were playing great defense and I just didn’t feel good about having three points in that situation,” Smith said. “The worst-case scenario would have been for us not to get it and we still had them backed up. It was a field position game throughout. I’d make that call every time.”
Cutler completed 23 of 35 passes, with Forte catching seven for 151 yards – the second most by a Bears running back behind Hall of Famer George McAfee’s 157 against the Rams in 1947. Forte’s day included an 89-yard screen for a touchdown near the end of the first half, pulling Chicago within 14-10.
Forte’s 89-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter is the longest TD from scrimmage by a Bears running back in franchise history.
Moments later, Stafford went down. He was hit in the shoulder by Peppers as he dropped back to pass and landed on it, the ball coming loose in the process.
Chicago’s Tommie Harris recovered, and the Bears took over on the 37 after a 15-yard penalty against Brian Urlacher with 15 seconds left, setting up a field goal by Gould that made it 14-13.
Stafford had his arm in a sling as the second half started.
Rookie Jahvid Best had two touchdowns rushing as the Lions built a 14-3 lead, before the Bears came back. Even so, squeaking by a team with a league-record 30 losses over the previous two seasons probably did little to ease angst around Chicago, even if the Lions appear to be improved. Bears fans are looking for more after a 7-9 finish and third straight playoff miss, but Cutler wasn’t complaining.
“It’s the first game,” he said. “A win is a win, we’re going to take it any way we can get it.
Notes: Lions MLB DeAndre Levy was inactive because of a groin injury. Landon Johnson started in his place. … Lions CB Aaron Berry, who had an interception in the first half, left the game with a shoulder injury. … Bears LBs Nick Roach (hamstring) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (illness) left the game. Mark Anderson started at left defensive end for Chicago over Israel Idonije. … Bears LS Patrick Mannelly tied Walter Payton for second on the Bears’ all-time appearances list with 190 – one behind Steve McMichael.
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