Breathe deep. Stop banging your head. This is who they are. A team that plays up to good opponents and down to bad ones and isn’t happy unless it’s trailing in the fourth quarter. It doesn’t matter that the Detroit Lions flirt with disaster every week, as long as they keep winning. It may matter to your cardiologist. But not to the standings.
“We’re trying to score 2,000 points if we can, we’re trying to stop them every single time, but it hasn’t worked out that way,” said coach Jim Caldwell, half-grinning after another squeaker Sunday that needed a punt return touchdown, an interception return touchdown, and a draw-them-offside fourth-down cadence to secure a 26-19 victory over last-place Jacksonville. “Our mind-set is not ‘Keep it close and see if you can win.’ … But nevertheless, it’s happening.”
Oh, it’s happening, all right. Not a single game this year has been won by more than a touchdown. Not a single game has seen the Lions lead an entire fourth quarter. And meanwhile, they are 6-4 and tied for first place heading into the Thanksgiving showdown with their co-leaders, the Vikings.
Another wild ride
Let’s be clear. Sunday’s performance will not win on Thursday. But by Thursday, they’ll have a whole new way of making you chew off your fingernails.
Against the lowly Jaguars, it was a maddeningly useless rushing attack, and a Groundhog Day of three-and-out offensive series. I don’t want to say punter Sam Martin got a lot of work. But I think he was taking oxygen.
“Struggling for yards, big plays, first downs,” quarterback Matthew Stafford would lament. “Whatever it was (we) didn’t play as well as we can.”
Six times, the Lions punted it back to Jacksonville, which had won two games all year. And with 13 minutes left in the game, the Lions had, ahem, 2 yards rushing. Two? You can get that by falling forward.
They would finish with a whopping 14 yards on the ground, or as they say in Dallas, two Zeke Elliott handoffs (and that was on 21 attempts!). It was their third-lowest rushing output since 2007.
But typical for the Lions, when they most needed it, they got a fourth-quarter drive, led, naturally, by Stafford, that chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock. And you want to know the highlight? Not a bomb. Not a scramble. Not even the field goal that finished it.
Nope. The highlight was a fourth down, “Huutt, huuutttt, huttt!” that drew Jaguars lineman Sen’Derrick Marks offsides, giving the Lions a first down and the chance to run the clock down to mere seconds.
“They’d done it before on tape, so we saw it,” Stafford said, grinning afterward. “It was a heat-of-the-moment call … but, you know, it worked.”
But, you know, it worked. That could be the mantra for this highly irregular season — irregular, because in years past the Lions have played better and lost more. This year, they rank near the bottom in several important categories, including rushing yards and third-down conversions allowed, yet they’d be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
In fact, they’d be hosting a postseason game.
Here’s the kitchen sink that got thrown out there on Sunday. Two fumbles and two fumble recoveries, a muffed punt by Andre Roberts, followed by a 55-yard punt return by, who else, Roberts, that went for a touchdown. A tipped ball, leap in the air interception by Rafael Bush that he also returned for a touchdown. A Stafford scramble and heave for 61 yards to Eric Ebron in the fourth quarter, and a 1-yard handoff to Ebron on a modified jet sweep (a tight end sweep?) that gave the Lions their only offensive touchdown, and gave Ebron the first rushing touchdown of his career.
“I was just happy to get that play over with,” Ebron told the media, admitting it had been drawn up and practiced all week, leaving Ebron nervous about its execution. “We stole it from New Orleans … This is a copycat league, man. Somebody else is gonna run it in about two weeks.”
But nobody else is doing what the Lions are doing.
Schedule getting harder
Consider this win, 26-19, was their biggest margin of victory all year. What makes it more notable is that Sunday was the game after the Lions’ bye week. The theory is that bye weeks provide your players rest. But rest and rust are just a letter apart. And for much of the game Detroit looked more rusted than rested. The Lions missed an extra point. They missed open receivers. They missed tackles.
But they also made spectacular plays, unexpected returns, rollouts by Stafford that led to big gains, and arm whip passes that, incredibly, found their targets (he finished 24 of 33 for 278 yards). Yes, in years past, they might have executed better — and lost. So perhaps we can enjoy this streak of unlikely comebacks as payment for seasons past.
And then, let’s not kid ourselves. December is not November in the NFL. The great teams bear down. The final weeks will see the Lions on the road against the Cowboys and the Giants — both chasing the NFC East crown — and the Saints, who score a lot and lose close when they lose. Chicago, with Jay Cutler back, will be coming to Ford Field, and Green Bay will be the season finale, with the Packers having already beaten the Lions this season.
And of course, here comes Thursday, against the surprisingly good Vikings, who, as Caldwell said, “are gonna be angry” after losing to Detroit earlier this season.
In other words, no easy weeks. In fact, Sunday was, on paper, supposed to be the last easy week, and look how that one worked out.
“There’s a whole lot of areas where we can get better,” Stafford said, “and we’ll have to do it in a short time.”
Meanwhile, fix your TV screen. Fill the hole you punched into your coffee table. Put some ice on your head where you clapped your hands against it. Because, as the scoreboard tells us, the Lions won. They won. Hey. You don’t go to movies where you know the end ahead of time. This is the fun of football in the NFL, all this uncertainty and incongruity and fourth-quarter insanity, right?
I can’t hear you …
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go here.