It's really amazing how quickly the outlook of a season can change in the NFL. Going into Sunday, the Detroit Lions were riding high. They rebounded from a 1-3 start to get to 4-4, and a wild-card spot was in sight with a slumping Minnesota Vikings team on the schedule. Win this and the playoffs become a real possibility.
The unfortunate reality of that optimism is the possibility that it could all be for naught should the Lions not win. We found out on Sunday just how harsh that reality is, as the Lions failed to deliver in Minnesota. They reverted back to their old ways and started slow, and there would be no comeback. Instead, the Lions faded down the stretch and went on to lose to Minnesota by a score of 34-24. Forget the playoffs, and forget about being optimistic about this team.
Although the Lions did show some promise early with a couple quick first downs, it all went out the window with an illegal crackback penalty on Ryan Broyles. The flag killed the Lions' drive, and Minnesota wasted no time in making them pay. Christian Ponder found Jarius Wright for a gain of 54 yards on third-and-10 from the Minnesota 45. Two plays later, it was Ponder to Wright again, this time for a touchdown.
The Lions' slow start got even worse when Matthew Stafford was picked off on third down on the next drive. The Vikings took over at the Detroit 25 and were in position to add to their lead. A nice play by Cliff Avril to bat a pass back at Ponder resulted in a loss of 15 yards and all but forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal, but the early damage was done with Detroit now behind 10-0.
Following a couple of three-and-outs by both teams, the Lions' offense finally showed some life despite taking over at their own eight-yard line. Stafford came up with some big passes, finding Titus Young for seven and 16 yards and Calvin Johnson for 23. The Lions actually got all the way down to the Minnesota 10 before a negative run by Mikel Leshoure and a Stafford sack ended this drive. The Lions had to settle for a field goal, but at least they cut the lead back to one possession.
The Vikings responded by gashing the Lions' defense. They had little trouble moving down the field until they got inside the red zone. This is when the Lions' defense stepped it up and made a stop. Blair Walsh came out and kicked another field goal to make it 13-3 in favor of the Vikings, but at least the Lions were managing to hang around.
The first half came to an end in ugly fashion with both teams failing to do much of anything. The only noteworthy play was an interception return for a touchdown by the Vikings that was overturned by replay in the final two minutes of the half. I'm not quite sure how the officials missed the ball bouncing off the ground, but replay corrected their mistake and kept this a 13-3 game going into the half.
The second half started with more punts and yet another Walsh field goal. The defense was keeping the Lions in the game, but the offense had to get it going. It was pretty obvious that the defense would only hold up for so long, so it was really now or never for the offense. Enter Megatron. The Lions opened their next drive with a 20-yard pass to Johnson, and he followed it up with a 50-yard reception on the very next play. Johnson was pretty clearly hurting from the injuries he's dealing with, but he made a big play to flip the field. Two plays later, Stafford found Brandon Pettigrew for a 16-yard touchdown. Suddenly, the Lions were only down 16-10 with more than a quarter left to go.
The problem for the Lions is that just as the offense woke up, the defense went to sleep. The Vikings again gashed the Lions, and this time the defense did break. Ponder threw a 20-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown, and although the Vikings appeared to be holding on the play, there were no flags. As a result, the Vikings got back the touchdown they just gave up, and they added a two-point conversion to make it 24-10 just 45 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Lions' offense kept up its end of the bargain with another quick scoring drive. A personal foul penalty on Minnesota got Detroit near midfield, and then Leshoure went for 14 yards and Johnson picked up 15. Johnson then went for 25 on the next play, which also resulted in another personal foul on Minnesota. Now on the one-yard line, the Lions didn't waste any time in scoring, as Stafford found Young for a touchdown on a perfect slant route.
Just down by one touchdown, the Lions forced a three-and-out. To make things even better, Stefan Logan had a 31-yard punt return, giving the Lions the ball at midfield. It finally looked like everything was coming together for this team and they were going to go down the field and tie things up. That did not happen, though. Instead, the Lions had their drive killed by a holding penalty on Jeff Backus. They went three-and-out and had to punt the ball away, and Adrian Peterson made them pay with a 61-yard touchdown run two plays later.
The Lions saw any real hope of a comeback go out the window when Johnson fumbled the ball away to Minnesota on a 20-yard catch to open their next drive. Minnesota recovered and turned the fumble recovery into a field goal, making this a 34-17 game. While the Lions did find the end zone on their next drive with Stafford's first touchdown pass to Johnson all season (from 11 yards out), it was too little too late. The Lions were unable to recover an onside kick that they squibbed down the field, meaning Minnesota got the ball back. One personal foul on Sammie Hill later and the game was over, as Ponder simply took a knee three times to run out the clock. The Lions fell by a score of 34-24.
This was pretty much a classic 2012 Lions game. They came out slow, but the defense played well enough to keep things close. Once the offense woke up, the defense could no longer hold, allowing the opponent to pull away. The Lions tried to make things interesting with a late comeback, but they came up short.
This game was just a complete failure from top to bottom for the Lions. The players didn't execute, and the coaches didn't seem like they had the team ready to play. Considering how important it was for the Lions to win, this is quite alarming. To show up completely flat in such a big game is just absolutely inexcusable, and considering the Lions are now 4-5 and have so many tough games left this season, you can pretty much close the door on the idea of them making the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation now for the Lions is that the rest of 2012 will be more about 2013 than anything. By that, I mean what happens in the final seven games will have more to do with draft positioning than the playoff race. Also, the future of this coaching staff could very well be impacted by the final seven games of the season. If the Lions just completely fall apart and go out with a losing record, it could set up an offseason full of changes.
I know there is still a lot of football to be played, but it's tough not to start looking ahead to the offseason given the current state of the team. The Lions' hopes of making the playoffs are slim, and not just because of their record and schedule. Quite simply, the Lions just aren't a good team, and that's the worst part of it all. If they were losing games on bad calls or just because they were playing great teams, that would be one thing. But that's not the case at all. The Lions are losing very winnable games in maddening fashion. They show us glimpses of how good they can be, but only for a few drives here or there. The Lions just don't seem capable of putting together a complete game against a competent opponent, and that is why they are still in last place in the NFC North. With the Green Bay Packers up next for the Lions, I would be shocked if the story is any different come this time next week.