DETROIT -- Sam Martin was about to head into the shower. Reporters were waiting and he was going to talk, but at first, the punter wanted a few minutes before he explained what happened, what went wrong.
Then he changed his mind. He walked back to his locker, and for more than two minutes the rookie broke down why his final punt during the Detroit Lions’ 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was one of the worst of his short career. Why one half-inch turned a typical Martin punt into a 28-yard shank and one of the many contributing factors into a loss devastating enough for quarterback Matthew Stafford to consider it one of the toughest of his career.
“Had nothing to do with the pressure,” Martin said. “It was the simple fact that I thought they were going to try blocking the punt and I rushed myself. I was trying to put the ball on the sideline to keep it away from the returner and I pulled it.”
A half-inch and a wrong read from everyone involved, from the rookie kicking the ball to decisions made before the play. Cincinnati didn’t rush the punt, so Martin rushed his process for no reason.
He didn’t know about the lack of rush until he stepped off the field, but he knew he hit a bad punt the second he kicked it.
Martin finished his media obligations, sat back in his chair and stared at his locker for a while.
Across the locker room, cornerback Chris Houston was placing all the blame on himself. He was beat badly on double moves, including one on Cincinnati’s opening series leading to an 82-yard touchdown. He was the coverage man on two of the Bengals’ touchdowns Sunday and was pulled to start the second half in favor of rookie Darius Slay. Houston understood the decision and said that to his recollection it was the first time he had ever been benched.
“It was just a wake-up call, man,” Houston said. “That first half was probably my worst football I ever played.”
Houston has seen double moves all season. His aggressiveness, wanting to make a big play, cost him. The long touchdown to Green was all on him. He said he got caught in an out-and-up and couldn’t recover.
He returned to the game later after Rashean Mathis injured his groin, but he said after the game was over “this loss was on me.”
“If I kept playing like that, I would have took myself out and put somebody in there,” Houston said. “Like I said, I felt like I let my team down. My offense, defense, special teams, my coaches.”
It goes beyond one player or two players, though, to understand how this loss happened.
Detroit had a field-goal try late in the first half blocked and Cincinnati went on to score a touchdown, turning what could have been a 13-7 Detroit lead into a 14-10 Cincinnati one at halftime.
The Lions couldn’t get much running room, gaining only 3.1 yards a carry. All of this rolled into a play here, a play there. A drive that couldn’t get started at the end turning a potential game-winning drive into a difficult loss.
"They came in and they finished," receiver Kris Durham said. "And we didn't."
They didn't Sunday, but they have in the past this season. That might be the difference with Detroit this year. The Lions have shown resiliency in the past. They came back to win games already this season against Minnesota and Cleveland. They could still win the NFC North.
Dallas comes in next week, and then the Lions are off. And while there isn’t necessarily pressure there, for Detroit to keep the positive momentum it had over the first six weeks of the season, it would help if the Lions didn’t lose two in a row at home.
“We will bounce back,” center Dominic Raiola said. “I know we will bounce back. We have a bunch of fighters in here. Look who is in this room, look at our quarterback. We have the best wide receiver in the world. We have a bunch of fighters in here.”
The quarterback, Stafford, is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. But this loss hurt him. As Martin stared at his locker, Stafford was not far away.
A baseball cap on his head, fully dressed, but he didn’t leave. He sat in silence instead, staring out at the rest of the locker room.
While it is not known what he was thinking, there was one prevailing feeling among the Lions. They had let what could have been a massive victory slip away.