FINAL NAIL: Coming up a ‘play short’ turns out to be this team’s true identity

A lump of goal. An empty stocking. Meaningful football just took the rest of the year off in Detroit. In a game Sunday that, for a while, nobody seemed to want, the New York Giants finally looked at the Ford Field scoreboard, saw a fourth down in overtime, and decided, “Why not?”

Moments later, Lions fans were once again crying, “Why us?”

Or “Why again?” Or “Why, Lord, this close to Christmas?” Take your pick. As the Four Tops once sang, it’s the same old song. It goes like this:

That’s that.

The Lions are done, out of playoffs after watching someone else’s winning field goal sail through the uprights for the second week in row. We can talk about Matthew Stafford’s two interceptions. We can talk about the disappearance of Calvin Johnson, whose injuries are as mysterious as an NSA news conference. We can talk about Reggie Bush’s fumbles and subsequent Hamlet-like funk or the defense’s inability to close third downs in the first half.

But in the end, a team that had nothing left to play for came into Ford Field and beat a team that had everything to play for.

That’s all you need to know.

And now a 6-3 Detroit team will finish no better than 8-8, maybe even 7-9. A team that should have won its division will finish out of the running. And the ownership of this franchise should have no teeth left this morning, after the grinding and gnashing that accompanied this last must-win game of the season – a game that was, once again, lost.

“There’s gonna be scrutiny on everybody,” predicted receiver Nate Burleson. “It’s not just Jim (Schwartz). It’s gonna be the players, the guys wearing the jerseys. … It’s the nature of the business.

“When it’s good, it’s great. The praise is everything you want. But when its bad, the criticism comes like an avalanche.”

In that case, Lions, one word:

Duck.

Yelling at the fans

Because for much of the game Sunday, that seemed to be the team’s posture when it came to winning. Whenever the Giants lobbed over opportunities, the Lions kept ducking and then lobbing them back.

Whiff. Stumble. Turnover. Stumble. By the end it was just sad, with each team playing as if winning were some exhausting thing that they used to do when they were younger. The Lions and Giants were like two old boxers who had forgotten how to punch, flailing at each other, in distant memory of a knockout technique.

“It is sickening,” Ndamukong Suh would say. That pretty much sums it up. Detroit struggled to take a 20-13 lead, then threw themselves into a 20-20 tie with a deflected-pass interception that the Giants returned for a touchdown.

Then the Giants – many of whom were on a Super Bowl team not too long ago – threw a bad interception while driving for a winning score. And the Lions chose to basically run out the clock to overtime, which left the crowd booing and Jim Schwartz yelling at them in response.

Uh, Jim? That game is over here, OK?

In overtime, New York fumbled the ball away after getting within field-goal range. But the Lions dropped a wide-open pass, got called for holding, punted the ball, gave up a 26-yard completion on third down and … well, you know where this is going.

Finally, on a fourth-and-7 at the Lions 42, Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided to go for the victory presumably before the league threw both teams off the field for ineptitude. And the Lions’ defense failed to get to Eli Manning, allowing him to step up to hit Jerrel Jernigan over the middle for 15 yards and a killer first down.

From there, it was like waiting in the cell for the executioner. Four plays later, that final field goal went through the uprights, and the fans who had been booing vociferously earlier didn’t even have the strength for it anymore. Just a dull silence and a long, cold walk back to the cars.

That’s that.

Who’s talking playoffs?

“I think our team battled tooth and nail,” Schwartz said after the 23-20 defeat. “We came up a play short.”

He then detailed at least five plays that came up short. But that’s not the point. The “play short’ excuse time is over. That’s OK for a single game. It’s not a season-long explanation. When you keep coming up a play short, you are a team short.

So Schwartz now will endure the worst stretch an NFL coach can face, a meaningless final week with fans screaming for his head. He can thank the calendar that it’s Christmas in a few days, although at this point even Santa Claus might be calling sports-talk radio.

The sad truth is, the Giants, a 5-9 team coming in, had been tongue-lashed by Coughlin for a lackluster effort in a 23-0 loss to Seattle. Meanwhile, the Lions had been encouraged by Schwartz not to give up after blowing that critical Monday night game against Baltimore.

And which team ended up winning – on the road?

That should tell you something about the coaching staffs.

And now it’s really over. No more worrying that it might happen, because it just did. No more thinking “they have to be better than this” – because there is only “this.” Five losses in six games is not a bad break, it’s an identity. The Lions are not a playoff team, they won’t even be a winning team. And with this talent, that’s just maddening.

A lump of coal. An empty stocking. There are many pleasant Christmas songs this time of year, but the same old “that’s that” for the Lions isn’t one of them. Bah humbug

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