Late Tim Boyle interception dooms Detroit Lions in 20-16 loss to Atlanta Falcons

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ATLANTA — Tim Boyle let out a big sigh as Taylor Decker helped him off the ground. Halapoulivaati Vaitai walked over and gave him a consolatory pat on the helmet. Jamaal Williams greeted him with a few words of encouragement on the sideline.

Boyle played mostly well in his second career Sunday, but was done in by his own inexperience, throwing a game-sealing red-zone interception with 33 seconds to play as the Detroit Lions lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 20-16, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Boyle's interception came two series after Dan Campbell made a rare conservative late-game decision, kicking a field goal on fourth-and-5, down seven points, from the Atlanta 8.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin forced a fumble on the ensuing possession, and the shorthanded Lions had first-and-goal at the Atlanta 9 when Boyle misdiagnosed the Falcons defense.

"It’s a man-zone read, so if I have man I’m working one side, if I have zone, I’m working the other," Boyle said. "When we broke the huddle, kind of unclear if it was man or a zone based off of the looks that they gave previously. Looking back, it was man coverage. I worked the zone coverage side. That was my mistake. Ultimately that falls on me and my decision making. In the moment, a lot of things are flying around and it’s critical and every situation, especially that last play is so critical."

Under pressure from Falcons linebacker Dante Fowler, Boyle tried squeezing a back-shoulder pass to Kalif Raymond into triple coverage, but linebacker Foyesade Oluokun jumped the route at the 1-yard line for his second interception of the season.

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Boyle said he should have worked the left side of the formation, where Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown were in single coverage against Atlanta defensive backs.

"Probably would have had a little bit better opportunity of scoring," he said. "But that’s my first time being in a two-minute drive with an opportunity to win a game. It’s intense and people are tired and communication kind of, it just, it’s being able to kind of settle down in those moments. Not that I don’t think it was too big for me, but it’s just – it’s football. It’s football. It comes down to the last game, I made a critical error that I can’t make and ultimately that falls on me."

The Lions, with starting quarterback Jared Goff on the reserve/COVID-19 list and top running back D'Andre Swift out for the fourth straight game with a sprained shoulder, continued a string of mostly strong performances since the bye week.

They won the time of possession battle by more than 16 minutes and held Atlanta to 47 net yards rushing, but still fell to 2-12-1 on the season.

With two games left at the Seattle Seahawks next week and home against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 9, the Lions remain in control of the No. 2 pick in next year's draft, behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13).

The Lions can lock up at least a top-two pick with another loss.

"We're playing better football right now than we did when we started and that's what you're looking for," Campbell said. "And ultimately the guys who will be here next year, they're going to learn from this and this is a bitter taste in their mouth that I hope they never freaking forget."

Boyle finished 24 of 34 passing for 187 yards, a significant improvement from his first career start last month against the Cleveland Browns, when he completed 15 of 23 passes for 77 yards with two interceptions.

With Goff in COVID protocols, the Lions came out aggressive Sunday, throwing on their first four plays from scrimmage before resorting to a ball-control offense.

The Falcons (7-8) scored on four straight possessions to take a 20-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, when the Lions mounted a 17-play, 66-yard field goal drive that lasted 10 minutes, 26 seconds.

Campbell, one of the NFL’s most aggressive coaches this season, opted to kick a 26-yard field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 8 with under 3 minutes to play rather than play for a touchdown.

The Falcons needed one first down to run the clock out on the ensuing possession, but Reeves-Maybin forced a Russell Gage fumble on a third-and-7 bubble screen that Dean Marlowe recovered for the Lions.

"They're just putting a lot of trust in us in that situation and we've got to go out and make the stop," Reeves-Maybin said. "Luckily, we got it. We did a great job recovering it. You know, we've got to play a little bit more consistent throughout the game so we don't get put in that situation."

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St. Brown had a game-high nine catches for 91 yards and scored the Lions’ only touchdown on a 20-yard pass late in the first half. Boyle missed him on another would-be touchdown on the game's second series, when they Lions settled for their first of three field goals.

Ryan finished 18 of 24 passing for 215 yards with one touchdown, a 12-yard pass to Hayden Hurst with 12:04 to play, and Kyle Pitts had six catches for 102 yards for the Falcons (7-8).

"Give credit to Atlanta and what they're doing over there," Campbell said. "They did enough to close that game out and it's credit to them. I was proud of our guys we ran it to the end. All you can ask is that you put yourself in position to win a game and we had that ability right at the end of the game. We just didn’t close it out.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions can't cash in late, lose in Atlanta, 20-16