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4 takeaways from the Lions’ loss to the Panthers

You need but one word to summarize that game: ugly. But here’s 1195 more.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

It was far from a Christmas miracle on Saturday for the Detroit Lions. With the playoffs heating up, the Lions were instead cooling down. The Carolina Panthers were in control for most of the game, quite literally running over the Lions defense. The Lions are still in the playoff hunt, but a loss to the Panthers throws a wrench in their plays. With a chance to take control of their playoff destiny, they will instead head into the final two weeks with a lot on the line.

Here are four takeaway from this lowly Lions loss.

Merry Christmas, you filthy Lions

I’m not going to be cute or witty with my takeaways. The Lions don’t deserve it after this performance. The Lions did not look like a team coming off six wins in their last seven games. Instead, they looked like a team deserving of a playoff-less season. For as hard of battle their victory over the New York Jets was last week, the Lions looked completely toothless against an inferior opponent. Were the Lions coasting with games against division rivals to close out the season? Were they frozen by the bitter cold in Charlotte? Either way, there are no excuses for a game like this.

The lowlight of the game was the run defense. The Panthers put up historic numbers in the first half alone, and it didn’t get much better in the second half. The Panthers finished with two 100-yard rushers, and Sam Darnold added a score on the ground himself. Darnold wasn’t prolific in the passing game, but the Lions kept giving up chunk plays at the worst moments. A massive Darnold-to-D.J. Moore pass for 47 yards set up Carolina for a 31-7 lead, a lead that Detroit never truly came close to threatening. In total, the Panthers offense racked up 570 total yards on offense. The Lions defense has not been elite or anything in recent weeks, but to allow such a total is horrific. The defensive line was impressive in recent weeks, especially in run defense—what happened?

Passing game still looks promising

It was a day where the passing offense didn’t particularly struggle. Jared Goff completed some deep passes to DJ Chark and Kalif Raymond despite the frigid temperatures, and his intermediate passes were mostly good on the day. Shane Zylstra added a trio of touchdowns in the red zone as well. Aside from the fumbled snap in the red zone, it was hard to find much fault with Goff or the passing attack.

The running game is lost, though

Where the offense did struggle was the run game, and it set themselves up for failure. Neither Jamaal Williams nor D’Andre Swift nor Justin Jackson averaged above 3.0 yards per carry, the longest run between them coming in at a measly 4 yards. In fact, Goff and Raymond had the longest runs on the day with carries of 14 and 8 yards, respectively. For a team that prided itself on a hard-nosed run game, this was not going to cut it.

Worse yet, Detroit’s inability to run the ball set them up for second- and third-and-longs, punishing any hiccup by the passing offense. Perhaps the worst offense was a Swift carry on third-and-9 at the Carolina 11-yard line. Sure, Swift got them four yards for a fourth-and-5, but when you’re playing catchup and need touchdowns, why aren’t you taking an end zone shot? The difference between a fourth-and-9 and fourth-and-5 is minor on the play call that close to the end zone—with the run game struggles, give me two shots at the end zone through the air. It’s time to admit that the Lions have no run game.

Playoff hopes aren’t gone... but they’re close to gone

The Lions fell below .500 again, and situations are looking dire on the playoff front. Winning out is practically a must for Detroit, and their upcoming opponents could be problematic:

The Lions have to face the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers with the season on the line, and that is not a reassuring prospect. Justin Fields is dangerous with his legs. If the Lions cannot contain a quarterback like Darnold, I doubt they will fare much better against a quarterback that gutted them for 147 yards in their previous matchup. Elsewhere, the Packers are playing better of late, and they have an outside chance at the playoffs. Even if they are eliminated before then, I guarantee Aaron Rodgers would love nothing more than to send Detroit packing.

The Lions wasted a prime opportunity to control their own destiny. With the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants on their way to Wild Card spots, the remaining spot will be a logjam. The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders each have a leg up on the Lions. The Seahawks lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, while the Commanders face the 49ers as of this writing. If Washington also loses on Saturday, the Lions would need to go 2-0 down the stretch with Seattle and Washington going 1-1 each. Washington will face the Cleveland Browns and Cowboys, while Seattle will face the Jets and Los Angeles Rams. Alternately, the Giants losing out would also boost Detroit’s chances of making the playoffs, though they’ll face the Indianapolis Colts in Week 17 and a Philadelphia Eagles team likely resting their starters in Week 18.

“Too little, too late” may end up being the story of the Lions’ season. The Lions went on a hot streak, but a putrid start to the season left them no margin for error. Similarly against the Panthers, the Lions rattled off some good drives late in the game, but the deficit was too large to do anything with it. Have the Lions exceeded expectations by even being in the playoff conversation? Yes. Does it make up for a performance like this? No. Instead, the Lions have to gather themselves with haste.

The Lions have had worse losses statistically, but the only feeling I have from this loss is disappointment. It’s one thing to lose a game at a crucial junction of the season, but to get beat down like this hurts even more. This reminds me of the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals back in 2017—the Lions were pushing for the playoffs but lost to an opponent they likely overlooked as an easy win, a loss that ended up costing them a shot at the playoffs.

Maybe I got too excited about the playoffs. Maybe I overlooked too many of the flaws on this team. Yet with the playoffs enticingly close and the team playing well, you cannot fault me for being excited. You cannot fault me for wanting a season with more literal victories than moral victories. For all the good that has happened this team, I wanted it to amount to more than optimism entering the offseason. If this was the game to dash those dreams, then it will leave a sour taste indeed.

The Lions aren’t out of the playoff race yet, but today’s loss was a significant blow.