September should be must-win time in baseball, not football. But here we are. The Detroit Lions play an undefeated Denver Broncos team Sunday night with nothing less than the course of the season hanging in the balance.
Win the game, they sidestep a massive sinkhole, prove themselves to a national TV audience and perhaps gain the confidence needed to pull an upset next week in Seattle.
Lose? Well, it’s not technically over, but it’s likely over. To make the playoffs, they’d probably need a 10-3 record the rest of the way, starting with a win over the Seahawks out west. And this group doesn’t seem a likely candidate for 10-3.
That’s the way it works in the NFL, a high-octane parade that keeps going no matter what good excuses you have. Fall behind, you’re done. Everyone knew looking at the Lions’ schedule that the first four games were scary. Opening on the road against San Diego? One home game in the first month? Facing Denver and Seattle, both in a Super Bowl in the last two years, as opponents No. 3 and No. 4?
Which is why losing to Minnesota last week was so damaging. You simply cannot drop the games you are supposed to win, or at least can win, and, on paper, the Lions should have beaten the Vikings. Instead, it was a mess of turnovers, missed assignments, porous line play and a quarterback on the run.
And now the Lions have to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, or they’ll spend the rest of the season trying to scratch and claw to relevancy.
“It’s a big game because it’s the next game,” Jim Caldwell told the media last week.
No, it’s not. It’s a big game because if they lose it, the next games may not save them.
And here we go again
Why does it feel like this constantly happens to the Lions? It actually doesn’t. They sometimes start seasons hot (they won five of their first seven the last two years) then fall apart at the end.
It doesn’t help that they are perennially behind the Green Bay Packers. Detroit hasn’t won its division since 1993. The Packers have won it the last four years. Even an 11-5 record for the Lions last season (their best finish in 23 years) wasn’t enough to capture the NFC North. So Detroit got a wild-card playoff game instead, on the road against the Cowboys, and lost a close one. The Packers had the week off, then played the same Cowboys in Lambeau Field and beat them. On such things do entire seasons turn.
Having to chase a wild card every year is bad enough. But starting 0-3 (especially if the Packers stay perfect with a win Monday) almost assures it will happen again.
This team needs a fast fix
Here are the other reasons this feels annoyingly familiar. The holes the Lions keep patching keep leaking. The offensive line is, so far, a big disappointment. The whole idea in losing Dominic Raiola and drafting Laken Tomlinson was to shake up a porous front and protect the investment, Matthew Stafford, who seemed genuinely excited in training camp but is grimacing a lot now.
The Lions are schizophrenic about the O-line. They try to build with retreads or undrafted players, then use first-round picks that don’t live up to the hype. Riley Reiff was a first-rounder. So was Tomlinson. So was Eric Ebron for that matter, since tight ends are supposed to help with blocking.
But unlike Dallas, which invested heavily in high draft picks that paid off, or New England, which revamped its line with a bunch of rookies, the Detroit front has not delivered. Not protection. Not holes for the running game.
“If there’s any group on the football field that needs to play together more … it’s the offensive line,” Stafford said last week. “They need time. I’m not worried about ’em in the least bit.”
That’s good. Then again, if he said he was, they’d really be in trouble.
As for the defense? It’s only been two games, but those who were hailing Teryl Austin as a Svengali are now thinking magic works better when you have big rabbits — like the departed Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, or the injured DeAndre Levy. The Lions rank 31st in overall defense after two losses.
Sure, it’s comforting that several highly rated teams are 0-2. The Seahawks. The Ravens. The Colts. All picked for the playoffs. Someone will climb from the wreckage..
But for it to be the Lions, things must come together fast. And the coaching staff needs to be nimble. This franchise demands you beat the other teams and beat back the ghosts. There’s too much institutional memory in Detroit, of losing, dumb mistakes, disappointing draft picks and underachieving promise. Like the smell of grilled onions, it comes on strong the minute things start sizzling. Tonight goes a long way toward lowering the fire or heating up the frying pan.
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 to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.