In 15 of their 16 games in 2013, the Detroit Lions held a lead or were tied in the fourth quarter. Remarkably, the Lions only managed to win seven of those games. They consistently struggled to hold on to leads or make that one play that would have put them ahead, and they collapsed and managed to give away the NFC North crown as a result.
Really, this inability to close out games has been plaguing the Lions for a couple years now. On paper, they were much better than the 4-12 record they had in 2012, and they were capable of much more than a 7-9 record last season. They just couldn't seem to consistently avoid that killer mistake that derailed their chances of winning, and that ultimately led to the end of the Jim Schwartz era.
With Jim Caldwell now in charge, what do the Lions need to do differently at the end of close games in order to emerge victorious more often? Let's take a look at what went wrong down the stretch in their eight close losses in 2013.
Week 2 - Cardinals 25, Lions 21
The situation: Thanks to a 66-yard DeAndre Levy interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Lions went into the fourth quarter with a 21-16 lead.
What went wrong: The Lions got down to the Arizona 29 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and were unable to come away with any points. A 47-yard field goal by David Akers was blocked, and the Lions went three-and-out on their next possession. The defense then collapsed (thanks in part to a 31-yard pass interference penalty on Bill Bentley), allowing the Cardinals to go 61 yards in only seven plays and 2:29. Arizona scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:59 to go, and the Lions turned the ball over on downs after only five plays on their final drive of the game.
Week 7 - Bengals 27, Lions 24
The situation: A ridiculous 50-yard touchdown catch over three defenders by Calvin Johnson made this a 24-24 game with around 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
What went wrong: The Lions got into Cincinnati territory halfway through the fourth quarter but couldn't get past the 45. After trading punts, the Lions had the ball with 1:43 to go and had another chance to go up. Once again, though, they had to punt, and Sam Martin shanked it. The punt went only 28 yards, giving the Bengals the ball near midfield with 26 seconds to go. Two short passes put the Bengals into field goal range, and Mike Nugent ended the game with a 54-yard kick as time expired.
Week 11 - Steelers 37, Lions 27
The situation: The Lions dug themselves out of a 17-3 hole with a crazy second quarter that gave them a 27-20 lead at halftime. Going into the fourth quarter, the Lions maintained a 27-23 lead.
What went wrong: The Lions put together an excellent 12-play drive that covered 70 yards and ran 7:25 off the clock, but they failed to get into the end zone. They were at least in position to go up by 7 points with a 27-yard field goal, but that kick was never attempted. Instead, the Lions called for a fake field goal that saw Martin try to run through the rain and traverse a sloppy field in hopes of gaining the 5 yards they needed to move the chains. He made it 3 yards before fumbling, and the Steelers recovered and proceeded to put together a 16-play, 96-yard drive that ended with a touchdown to put them in front. The Lions followed up that awful sequence with an interception three plays into their next drive, and the Steelers turned that turnover into another touchdown. The Lions were done after falling behind 37-27 with only 2:29 to go.
Week 12 - Buccaneers 24, Lions 21
The situation: An 18-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew put the Lions up 21-17 in the third quarter, and they held that lead going into the fourth quarter.
What went wrong: On the second play of the fourth quarter, the Lions gave up an 85-yard touchdown pass from Mike Glennon to Tiquan Underwood. The touchdown gave the Bucs a 24-21 lead, but the Lions had lots of time to come back. Instead of rallying, though, the Lions repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Martin had a punt blocked, Kris Durham turned a key third-down conversion into a comical fumble where he basically handed the ball to the defense and a drop by Johnson became an interception as the Lions were driving for a tie or perhaps the go-ahead score. A pair of missed field goals by Tampa Bay in the fourth quarter gave the Lions a chance to at least force overtime, but their 5 total turnovers prevented that from happening.
Week 14 - Eagles 34, Lions 20
The situation: The Lions took a 14-0 lead on a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jeremy Ross, but that advantage quickly disappeared with a pair of quick touchdowns by Philadelphia. The second of those touchdowns was on a 40-yard run by LeSean McCoy that tied the game at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Lions quickly answered with a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown by Ross to take back the lead.
What went wrong: The defense held Philadelphia in check for most of this snow-filled day, but everything came apart in the fourth quarter. The Eagles answered Ross' second touchdown return with a 57-yard TD run by McCoy, and they went up 22-20 with a successful 2-point conversion. After a three-and-out by the Lions, the Eagles again gashed the Detroit defense and eventually scored on a Nick Foles sneak on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. A quick fumble by Matthew Stafford gave the ball right back to the Eagles, and they scored on a 38-yard touchdown run by Chris Polk. Suddenly it was 34-20 Eagles and this game was basically over with 2:58 to go in the fourth quarter.
Week 15 - Ravens 18, Lions 16
The situation: The Lions went in front by a score of 16-15 on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria with 2:21 to go in the fourth quarter.
What went wrong: With time ticking down, the Lions forced the Ravens into a third-and-15 situation at the Baltimore 28. Joe Flacco then completed a 27-yard pass to move the chains and, amazingly, put the Ravens in field goal range. Justin Tucker connected from 61 yards out to give the Ravens an 18-16 lead with 38 seconds left. The Lions responded with an interception on the one and only play of their next drive, effectively ending the game.
Week 16 - Giants 23, Lions 20 (OT)
The situation: Thanks to touchdowns by Joique Bell and Theo Riddick and a safety by Nick Fairley, the Lions rallied from a 13-3 deficit at halftime to take a 20-13 lead with just under 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
What went wrong: The Lions had the Giants shut down offensively, but Stafford threw a pick-six with 5 minutes left in regulation that made this a tie game. In overtime, the Lions failed to capitalize on a fumble by the Giants by following up the turnover with a three-and-out, and New York responded by winning the game on a 45-yard field goal.
Week 17 - Vikings 14, Lions 13
The situation: After trailing 7-0 at halftime, the Lions tied things up in the third quarter on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Bush. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, a pair of Akers field goals gave the Lions a 13-7 lead.
What went wrong: Minnesota returned a punt 50 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown on an 8-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson just two plays later. The Lions answered by getting down to the Minnesota 39, but the drive stalled and they had to punt. The Vikings then ran the final 4:53 off the clock, ending the game and the Lions' season.
The only loss from last season not featured on this list is the 22-9 defeat at the Green Bay Packers. The Lions were down only 6-3 at halftime despite not having Calvin Johnson, but they fell behind 22-3 at one point. It was never really all that close in crunch time, and it was really the only time last season that the Lions were truly out of a game in the fourth quarter. In their other eight losses, they had plenty of chances to win or at least go to overtime, but turnovers and collapses on both sides of the ball consistently kept the Lions from succeeding.
On the one hand, I suppose it's reassuring that the Lions were right there in 15 games last season. If the ball had simply taken a different bounce on a few plays, they easily could have finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. The talent was seemingly there for the Lions, but they just couldn't stop beating themselves. Issues like turnovers and mental breakdowns seem fixable, and perhaps a new coaching staff will instill a winning attitude that leads to consistent success in close games. The Lions were in position to win a lot more than seven games last season, and hopefully new leadership will help them get over the hump.
At the same time, perhaps this group of talent that the Lions have assembled is just lacking that killer instinct and is simply prone to crumbling in close games. The Lions have certainly won their fair share of close games over the years, but it does sort of seem like their issues in 2012 and 2013 went beyond turnovers and having some bad luck. Perhaps that was a reflection of Schwartz and his coaching staff more than anything, but this might be a tad more complex than simply taking better care of the ball.
In any case, the good news here for the Lions is that they weren't a team that was lucky to win seven whole games. They were really unlucky to only win seven games. It wasn't a situation where they were consistently being outplayed from week to week. Instead, the Lions were in position to win nearly every week, but they were consistently just one or two plays away in almost all of their losses. If the Lions can continue to be as competitive as they were in 2013 and actually bridge that gap in the fourth quarter this year, getting back to at least 10 wins and the playoffs doesn't seem all that far-fetched.