By NOAH TRISTER
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
By the time Donnie Avery crossed the goal line on the final play, handing Detroit a third straight agonizing loss, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Lions.
One more first down would have sealed the game, and they didn’t get it. A better punt would have pinned Indianapolis back, but it didn’t happen.
Still, Detroit was one play away from victory when Andrew Luck dumped the ball off to Avery at about the 10-yard line. None of the Lions reacted in time to make the tackle.
“We did a poor job. We were protecting the end zone,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “The worst job was letting the quarterback escape. If we put the quarterback on the clock, if we don’t give him a place to scramble, he never finds that guy.”
Luck’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Avery with no time left lifted the Colts to a 35-33 win over the Lions on Sunday, capping an excruciating homestand for Detroit.
The Lions were hoping these three games would boost their playoff hopes, but they lost to Green Bay, Houston and Indianapolis by a combined nine points.
Detroit (4-8) became the first team since at least 1983 to lose three straight games — all at home — after leading each with 2:00 remaining in regulation, according to STATS, LLC.
The Lions are the third team since at least 1940 to lose three in a row — all at home — after leading each in the fourth quarter.
With the final seconds ticking away, Luck moved up in the pocket and flipped a short pass to Avery. With Detroit’s secondary focused elsewhere, the receiver was able to reach the end zone standing up.
“You always hesitate throwing the ball not in the end zone, for fear of the clock running out with a guy inbounds,” Luck said. “Took the calculated risk that Donnie could get there in the end zone, and he did.”
Detroit led 33-21 when Luck threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to LaVon Brazill with 2:39 left. Facing third-and-5 near midfield, the Lions called a run, hoping to drain the clock if they didn’t gain enough yards.
Mikel Leshoure was stopped, but punter Nick Harris failed to pin the Colts back. His 25-yard effort gave Indianapolis (8-4) a manageable situation — the ball at its own 25 with 1:07 remaining.
“Terrible,” Schwartz said. “We had a chance to give them a long field, and we hit our worst punt of the game.”
The Colts made it to the Detroit 14 before three straight incompletions set up fourth down on the game’s final play.
The loss overshadowed a 13-catch, 171-yard performance by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, who made a one-handed reception in the first half and added a 46-yard TD in the third quarter that put the Lions up 30-21.
Matthew Stafford threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh set the tone with a sack on the Colts’ first play from scrimmage.
“They gave us the best player in the world. They gave us a star quarterback. They gave us a franchise defensive tackle,” offensive lineman Dominic Raiola said. “We just have to make plays. That’s why this keeps happening. The other team makes good plays and we don’t. That’s it.”
Luck’s 17-yard TD pass to Avery put the Colts ahead 7-3 in the first quarter — and Detroit didn’t let them lead again until it mattered most.
The Lions couldn’t pull away because they often had to settle for field goals. Jason Hanson made four, including a 31-yard kick that gave Detroit a 33-21 lead with 8:41 left.
“You aren’t going to score a touchdown every time, but we missed too many plays and ended up settling for three,” Stafford said. “Normally, you are happy if you put 33 on the board, but we made too many mistakes when we could have had touchdowns.”
Interim coach Bruce Arians, filling in for Chuck Pagano, who has leukemia, improved to 7-2 in charge of the Colts. They’re hoping to have Pagano back on the sideline for the last game of the regular season on Dec. 30 at home against Houston.
NOTES: Detroit WR Titus Young was inactive for a second straight game after falling out of favor for what Schwartz called “unacceptable” behavior against Green Bay last month. “He was back with the team in practice, he was part of our inactives today and he was told by me not to come to the stadium today,” Schwartz said. “I thought that’s what was best for the team today.” ... Detroit WR Ryan Broyles left the game early on with what looked like a right knee injury.
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