DETROIT — The Tennessee Titans set the tone for their game against Detroit on the opening kickoff, when Cody Riggs was called for a penalty during the return.
The Lions answered immediately with Haloti Ngata’s offside infraction on the first play from scrimmage.
Forget the final score of 16-15 Titans. For much of Sunday’s game , the story was the penalties, which occurred with such frequency for the first three quarters it looked like these two teams might threaten a 65-year-old NFL record.
Detroit finished with 17 penalties for 138 yards, and Tennessee was flagged 12 times for 83 yards.
“That’s got to be an NFL record,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “I’d have to think that.”
Not quite. The record is 37 penalties by Cleveland (21) and Chicago (16) on Nov. 25, 1951. The Lions and Titans were nearly halfway there after two quarters, having combined for 18. They were at 26 by the end of the third.
In 1937, Detroit was called for only 19 penalties for 139 yards all season — two records that still stand. The Lions nearly reached both of those totals in one game Sunday.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Detroit cornerback Darius Slay said. “The refs were calling everything. Got to clean it up and do better next week.”
The flags cost Detroit crucial points in an almost farcical sequence toward the end of the first half. A pass interference call on Tennessee gave the Lions first-and-goal from the 1. Then Detroit’s Eric Ebron had a touchdown catch wiped out by an offensive pass interference call on him.
On the next play, Matthew Stafford had another TD pass nullified, this time by a holding penalty. And the Lions were called for holding again on the play after that, leaving them with first-and-goal from the 26. They settled for a field goal.
“Obviously, the penalties were a problem. Seventeen penalties is ridiculous,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said. “We need to stop this. Time after time, we put the ball into the end zone and had it brought back by penalties, and we let the Titans off the hook several times with defensive penalties.”
A flag on a punt pinned the Titans back at their 5 in the first quarter and led directly to a safety that gave the Lions a 2-0 lead. Detroit had a touchdown called back in that quarter as well, but the Lions reached the end zone on that drive anyway.
There were four offside calls in the first quarter, and in the second, the Titans managed to get flagged for offside while kicking off after a field goal.
Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker said the teams could have anticipated this type of game with referee Brad Allen’s crew. There are scouting reports on officials too.
“We knew what type of referees we had,” Walker said. “They were probably throwing the most holding penalties, which they showed. We expected that. They made the game slower, but they are the referees. There’s no use fighting with them.”
In the third quarter, the Lions drove 63 yards in 14 plays for a field goal and a 15-3 lead. There were five penalties on that drive: holding on Detroit, unnecessary roughness on Detroit, holding on Tennessee, offensive pass interference on Detroit, and roughing the passer on Tennessee.
It was that kind of day.
“Tough to win a game that way,” Stafford said. “Tough to get into a rhythm.”