The Detroit Lions can't live and survive forever on comebacks. They can't rely on Matthew Stafford's golden arm and iron will and his cast of playmakers to rescue them with heroic comeback drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The lights can go out at any time on the highlights Stafford has produced. If we didn't learn that last year, we got a refresher course in Sunday's 26-24 road loss to the Dallas Cowboys – just like we did in a Game 2 road loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Living on the edge is a dangerous way to live. It cuts both ways – thrilling wins, chilling losses. And breaking even in the NFL gets you nowhere.
The Lions are below the break-even point with a 1-3 won-loss record, and they're in their predicament in large part because they've put themselves in position twice in losses to the 49ers and Cowboys where they couldn't produce comeback wins.
Among the other things we learned about the Lions from Sunday's loss includes the following: That the bounce of the ball can determine the outcome, as rookie defensive lineman Da"Shawn Hand learned; running back Kerryon Johnson has a KO punch to go with his speed; game situation dictates play calling; and a strength of the Lions' defense from recent seasons is missing – with a glaring example Sunday.
We start with comebacks: Stafford, Golden Tate and the rest of the offense did their part in bringing the Lions back from a 20-10 deficit to a 24-23 lead on Tate's 38-yard TD catch with 2:17 left. All seemed forgiven – from penalties to misplays to an offense that was slow to get in gear -- after Tate's play and Matt Prater's kick for the extra point.
Except for one thing: The defense hadn't stopped the Cowboys consistently at any point in the game, and that didn't happen on the last possession. The Cowboys drove to the winning field goal on the final play.
As heroic as the comeback had been, with Stafford completing all nine passes in the second half, the Lions were left to bemoan the chances they missed in the first half and the stops the defense failed to make from start to finish.
The lesson: Don't get in that spot in the first place.
"I agree with that," head coach Matt Patricia said at his regular Monday presser. "When we play in those types of games, when you rely on the last possession or it's kind of coming down to the end, you're kind of holding your breath.
"We obviously have an offense that can do a good job there at the end of the game, of coming back, but you don't want to be in that position. That's really not where you want to be. You want to be in a more controlled atmosphere from a team standpoint and feel like you're in a position to win."
The bounce: Hand, a fourth-round draft pick, might be the Lions' best defensive lineman with Ziggy Ansah unavailable because of a shoulder injury.
Hand almost saved the game for the Lions when he knocked the ball loose from Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the final possession. Prescott was able to get possession and avoid losing yardage by throwing the ball away.
Three plays later, Prescott connected with Elliott on a 34-yard completion that set up the winning field goal.
Hand talked Monday about what went through his mind when he knocked the ball loose.
"I saw it bounce ... 'Where you going?'" Hand said, relating his thoughts. "You're supposed to be coming to me."
Kerryon KO: Rookie running back Kerryon Johnson showed he has power to go with his speed on his eight-yard touchdown run in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Johnson ran through Cowboys starting safety Jeff Heath at the three-yard line and continued into the end zone.
Johnson celebrated the TD with teammates. There was nothing for Heath to celebrate at the moment. He left the game with a shoulder injury and did not return. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game that he did not think Heath's shoulder injury was serious.
Wounded pride and ego might be slower to heal, though.
Game situation: It dictates what teams can do on offense, and we saw what being in the lead meant to the Cowboys. Elliott had averaged 16 carries per game in the first three games. He had 25, his season high, against the Lions and produced 152 yards to take over the league's rushing lead.
The Lions barely had the ball in the second half. They had three possessions and ran 16 offensive plays – nine passes by Stafford, two sacks and five runs. The five runs gained 11 yards, or 2.2 yards per carry.
Takeaway on turnovers: The Lions were among the league leaders in takeaways last year. Through four games they have three takeaways – one fumble recovery and two interceptions.
They forced two fumbles Sunday. The Cowboys recovered both and converted them into a touchdown and the winning field goal.
If we hadn't learned before, the football is gold.