During their run to this year's World Series, the Detroit Tigers had to overcome the inability of their closer, Jose Valverde, to actually close games. There was really a helpless feeling whenever he entered the game, because you knew that things would likely end badly, and during the 2012 playoffs, things did end badly more often than not for Valverde.
I'm now getting that same feeling when watching the Detroit Lions try to close out a game. They had a lead in the final minutes at home in each of their last three games, and all three times they not only blew the lead, but they blew the game as well. The Lions' latest collapse was on Sunday, and it really was their worst one yet. Andrew Luck led the Indianapolis Colts back from a 12-point deficit, and on the game's final play, he scored the winning touchdown on a pass to Donnie Avery. The Lions lost by a score of 35-33 as a result, and they are now a dismal 4-8 on the season.
This turned out to be a back and forth game, but it really shouldn't have been. The Lions had plenty of chances to pull away and win by a few scores, but they continually failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities. It's been the theme of the entire season for the Lions, and it continued early and often on Sunday. Just look at the first quarter. The two teams traded punts to open the game, and the Lions quickly got into Colts territory on their second drive. They were driving and just needed 3 yards to move the chains on third down, but an incomplete pass meant that they had to settle for a 48-yard field goal.
The Colts immediately responded to the Lions' field goal with a touchdown. Indianapolis needed only 6 plays and 2:20 to go 80 yards, thanks mainly to a 60-yard pass to T.Y. Hilton. The defense looked lost, and Luck found Avery from 17 yards out to give the Colts a 7-3 lead.
This rough drive by the Lions actually seemed to wake up the team. The offense came out firing when it got the ball back, and once again it didn't take long for the Lions to get into Colts territory. Matthew Stafford connected with Tony Scheffler for a gain of 39 yards on a great catch, and Scheffler made another big play on third-and-6 shortly after. This moved the Lions inside the red zone, and Brandon Pettigrew made a nice catch in traffic for a 16-yard touchdown. The efficient 87-yard drive gave the Lions a 10-7 lead.
The Lions extended their lead after forcing a three-and-out with another quick strike. This time the big play was a 32-yard pass to Calvin Johnson, who somehow caught the ball using only one arm. The amazing catch moved the Lions down to the Colts 6-yard line, and two plays later Mikel Leshoure rumbled into the end zone for a touchdown. The Lions now were on top 17-7, and it seemed like they were on the verge of turning this into a blowout.
The feeling of an impending blowout didn't last long thanks to the Colts' quick response. Luck opened the next drive with a 40-yard pass, and two penalties on the Lions later, Indianapolis was deep in Detroit territory. This set up a 26-yard pass from Luck to Coby Fleener for a touchdown. The 80-yard drive made this a 17-14 game, and it only took the Colts 1:40 to go down the field.
Following a Lions three-and-out, the Colts managed to throw 2 interceptions on the only two plays of their next drive. The first interception was negated by an offside penalty on Kyle Vanden Bosch. The second one was not, however. Drayton Florence picked off Luck and returned the interception all the way down to the Colts 10-yard line. Unfortunately, Jacob Lacey stupidly pushed Luck from behind on the return, backing Detroit up to the Indy 20 after the penalty. It was an unnecessary penalty, and it might have actually helped Luck force Florence out of bounds.
In any case, the Lions should have gotten a touchdown out of this turnover. They were unable to find the end zone, though. Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass that would have put the Lions inside the 5-yard line, and the Lions couldn't even get a first down. Once again, they had to settle for a Jason Hanson field goal. His kick from 33 yards out was good, but this was another missed opportunity for the Lions.
The next missed opportunity came after a Colts three-and-out. The Lions took over with decent field position, and they needed only three plays to get into Indy territory. Once again, they couldn't get much farther. The drive stalled after a pair of incompletions, and Hanson came out to kick a 52-yard field goal. It was good, and the Lions now led 23-14.
The Colts had some luck moving the ball on their next possession, but that luck ran out when Don Carey intercepted a pass. Luck was pressured and made a bad decision to throw the ball where he did, allowing Carey to come up with the pick. He returned it to the Lions 43-yard line, giving Detroit a chance to add to its lead before halftime. In reality, this merely became the next missed opportunity, as Stafford threw a bad interception on the third play of the possession. Indy took over and punted after a three-and-out, and the Lions decided to simply run out the clock and go into the half with a 9-point lead.
The Colts opened the second half with no resistance from the Lions defense. Indianapolis went 80 yards in 2:55 and scored on an 11-yard run by Vick Ballard. The biggest play of the drive was a 42-yard pass from Luck to Avery. I didn't think Avery actually maintained possession, but there was a defensive pass interference penalty, so it didn't matter. Either way, the Colts got a big play, and now the Lions' lead was down to 2 points.
The next four drives of the game ended in punts. The Colts nearly got another big pass play to Hilton on one of the drives, but he was out of bounds by a toe. As a result, the Colts had to punt, and the Lions kept doing the same, as they were struggling to sustain drives.
At the end of the third quarter, Calvin Johnson took over and put this punting streak to rest. On third-and-12 from the Colts 46-yard line, Stafford scrambled to his right and heaved a pass to the goal line. Johnson made the catch and rolled into the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown. The big play added to Johnson's amazing numbers -- he finished with 13 catches for 171 yards and 1 TD in this game -- and gave the Lions a 30-21 lead going into the fourth quarter.
After two more punts by the Colts (with a Lions three-and-out in between), the Lions got another big play. This time, it came on the ground from Joique Bell, who broke free for a 67-yard run. All momentum was on the Lions' side, and a touchdown in this situation figured to put the game out of reach for the Colts. Once again, though, the Lions just couldn't put the nail in their opponent's coffin. The Lions failed to even move the chains after the big run by Bell, and all they got out of it was a 31-yard field goal by Hanson.
A 33-21 lead with 8:41 to go looked good for the Lions, but you could just sense that settling for field goals was going to come back to bite them. Okay, maybe not after Luck was intercepted again by Carey on the Colts' next drive. The Lions took over near midfield with only 6:40 left, and it now seemed like even they couldn't manage to screw this up. They did just that, though. The Lions failed to get past the Indy 45 after moving the chains once, and they ultimately had to punt.
The Colts took over at their own 15-yard line down 33-21 with only 4:02 left on the clock. What's more, they faced fourth-and-2 at their own 23. This is when the collapse began for the Lions. Luck scrambled for a first down, and a horsecollar penalty on Nick Fairley gave Indy 15 free yards. Four plays later, after picking up a third-down conversion, Luck was flushed out of the pocket to his left and threw a bomb to the end zone just before he was taken down from behind. Somehow Florence let LaVon Brazill get behind him, and Brazill caught the desperation pass for a 42-yard touchdown. This was suddenly a one-score game.
Needing to run off the final 2:39 of the fourth quarter to win the game, the Lions caught a big break when Johnson drew a defensive pass interference penalty on second-and-7. The penalty moved the Lions to their own 44, and it forced Indy to take its final timeout after a run by Bell on first down. The two-minute warning stopped the clock after second down, setting up third-and-5 to decide the game. Rather than risk stopping the clock with a pass, the Lions pitched the ball to Leshoure, and he managed to gain only 1 yard. The Lions were forced to punt, and the Colts got the ball back at their own 25 with only 1:07 on the clock.
The Lions' inability to end the game on offense put all of the pressure on the defense. As soon as Luck scrambled for 9 yards and then completed a 26-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, you could sense where this was going. Following a 16-yard scramble and a 10-yard completion, Lions fans knew how this was going to end. Even after three consecutive incompletions, the feeling of impending heartbreak existed. That heartbreak was delivered on the final play of the game. Luck hit Avery on the run, and Avery took the ball into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown. The clock read 0:00, and after the Colts added the extra point, the game was over. The scoreboard read 35-33 in favor of the Colts, and silence reigned over Ford Field.
The Lions may be finding new ways to lose games, but the general script is the same. They can't pull away when given opportunity after opportunity on offense, forcing the defense to come up with a key stop. The defense folds under pressure, allowing the opposing team to come back and win. It happened against the Green Bay Packers a couple weeks ago and the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving, and it happened on Sunday against the Colts.
Now at 4-8, the Lions are on the verge of completely collapsing as a team. They have lost four consecutive games, and next week the Lions have to go to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers on Sunday Night Football. Unless the Lions find a way to win their first road game against the Packers since 1991, that streak will grow to five consecutive losses.