DETROIT — Ryan Mathews didn’t need to fight for extra yardage. He didn’t need to battle the Lions’ defense. He didn’t need to be Superman.
All he needed was to hang onto the football.
“I just f----- up,” Mathews said. “I gotta get better in a situation like that. I can’t let my teammates down. I’ve got to get better. I just messed up.”
His fumble on a 3rd-and-2 with 2½ minutes left in the game and the Eagles leading by two led directly to the Lions’ game-winning field goal.
Seven plays after Lions defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker recovered Mathews’ fumble at the Eagles’ 45-yard-line, kicker Matt Prater made a 29-yard field goal to give the Lions the lead (see 10 Observations).
“I can’t let my teammates down, especially in a situation like that,” Mathews said, his voice barely audible. “Just got to get better. Move on and watch the film and get ready for the next opponent.”
Mathews has never been a big fumbler. Coming into Sunday’s game, he had fumbled 19 times in 1,245 career touches — about one every 65 touches. He had lost just 12 of those.
But since 2012, he had fumbled just eight times on 793 touches — one every 99 touches.
“Everybody on the team has the utmost confidence in Mathews with the ball in that situation,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “It’s up to us to have his back.”
After the fumble, the Lions drove 34 yards in seven plays to set up Prater’s game-winning field goal.
“When my number’s called like that, I have to be smart,” Mathews said. “It hurts. It hurts a little bit. Just have to move forward.”
The Eagles led 23-21 and had that 3rd-and-2 on their own 45-yard-line. Mathews took a pitch right from Carson Wentz, but the Lions had the line of scrimmage stacked and it was quickly clear the Eagles weren’t going to be converting the third down.
But Mathews — as tough, aggressive and physical a back as you’ll find — put his head down when he was about to get hit by Lions cornerback Darius Slay and appeared to initiate contact while holding the ball just with his left hand.
The ball nearly bounced out of bounds but stayed in.
“People make mistakes all the time in this league,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “He’s going to be hardest on himself. I know he’s disappointed right now. But that one play didn’t lose us the game.
“I know he’s going to beat himself up, but the burden falls on us as an offense. We never should have been in that situation in the first place.”
Head coach Doug Pederson said he tracked Mathews down immediately after the game ended.
“I just grabbed him on the way up the tunnel and said, ‘Hey, keep your head up. A lot of football left, a lot of season left, (you’re) still a good player, don’t let one play define your season.’”
Darren Sproles led the Eagles with 45 yards on just five carries. Neither Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner had a carry Sunday.
Why use Mathews on that crucial third down?
“In that situation, felt like the bigger back in that running situation — and the way he ran on the first couple plays — just keep feeding him,” Pederson said. “He was doing a nice job.”
But actually, Mathews gained only two yards and one yard on his two runs on that possession.
Mathews hasn’t put up big rushing numbers yet this year. He finished the game with 75 yards of offense — 42 rushing and 33 with a touchdown receiving.
He averaged only 3.8 yards per carry and has yet to average 4.0 yards per carry in a game yet this year.
Out of 29 running backs with 40 or more carries, Mathews ranks 23rd this year with 3.2 yards per carry.
The Eagles, now 3-1, face the 3-2 Redskins Sunday in Landover, Md., and Mathews said his job now is to put the Detroit disappointment behind him.
“Just have to work hard,” he said. “Evaluate yourself and bounce back."
Mathews is the first Eagle to fumble in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter with the Eagles leading in a game they eventually lost since Oct. 31, 1999, when Duce Staley — now Mathews' position coach — lost a fumble with the Eagles up 17-10 against the Giants.
The Giants eventually won 23-17 in overtime when Michael Strahan had a 44-yard pick-six against Eagles quarterback Doug Pederson.
“It hurts," Mathews said. "It stings a lot. But it’s over now. We can’t go back and replay it. Just got to move forward and get better.”