Aaron Rodgers backpedalled, then curled out, then curled out again. Seconds ticked away, but nobody could catch him. He scrambled left and more left and the chasing Detroit Lions were helpless – heck, you could have sent the cavalry after him, he wouldn’t be caught – and with his legs still churning and more seconds ticking off, he suddenly saw what he wanted, a receiver in the end zone open by a few inches. And he threw with his right hand while moving to his left and a Lions defender finally pushed him to the ground and he landed on his head. No matter. Rodgers bounced up and threw his hands in the air. Touchdown.
And for all intents and purposes, game over.
New year, same scent. The whiff of falling short still permeates our football winds. Never mind that the Lions are going to the playoffs. There are five days to talk about that.
But by every marker of success, they are not playing winning football right now, three straight defeats to playoff-bound teams, including this 31-24 defeat to Green Bay on Sunday night – a game not as close as that score suggests. And despite their insistence that “It’s a new season now,” the once-again second-place Lions let a golden chance to change their reputation fall from their grip.
Hey, it could not have been louder at Ford Field. The fans could not have been more supportive. But before the game was over, the Lions were missing a field goal, missing tackles, missing open receivers and missing the chance to change their history.
Once again, they showed a distinct inability to come out for the third quarter looking any different than the first two, while the opposing team made effective adjustments to win.
So a 14-10 halftime lead wound up a 31-24 defeat. Green Bay was simply better at executing, at staying on the field and at breaking the will of its opponent – again.
“It’s over, it’s a new season,” insisted Lions coach Jim Caldwell. “We can’t linger on this stuff.”
They can’t. But fans can. And they will. For here were the same old nightmares from last year, the year before, five years ago and what feels like forever.
Here was Rodgers running away from near-miss sacks and extending plays and drives. Here was Jordy Nelson coming through when it counted, finding seams in the defense that could swallow a bazooka. Here was another no-name running back making huge plays against the Lions’ defense (a second-year backup named Aaron Ripkowski who didn’t have a carry the last two weeks for Green Bay, but had 61 yards on Sunday) and another no-name receiver – a rookie named Geronimo Allison – looking like a Pro Bowler against the Lions’ secondary.
And here were the Lions shooting themselves in the foot even after their successes. Penalties. Blown coverage. Too many men on the field. Too many overthrown passes by a periodically inaccurate Matthew Stafford – including an almost certain touchdown pass early to a wide-open Golden Tate that sailed high and incomplete. How might that have changed things?
But then, this night was full of bad timing. Here’s a small example of a big thing: After a fine Lions’ scoring drive that gave them a 14-7 lead late in the second quarter, the Lions kicked the ball back to Green Bay with 23 seconds left. That should be a shutdown, right?
Yet somehow the Lions blew an easy defense and surrendered a 39-yard sideline completion, allowing the Packers a last-second field goal to send them into the locker room feeling much better, only trailing by 14-10.
Things like that add up. So do long scoring drives and time on the field chasing Rodgers. So do third downs that you don’t convert (7 of 12 missed by Detroit) and third downs that you surrender (7 of 13 given up by Detroit).
In the end, here’s your tag line: Aaron Rodgers is too good, and the Lions are not good enough.
New year, old scent.
A blown chance
“The last couple of weeks haven’t (gone) that well,” Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy admitted after the loss. “But the playoffs is a new start for us. The quicker we can put this behind us the better.”
No, Sunday night was not for the stakes that many had anticipated. Thanks to the Redskins losing to the Giants earlier on Sunday, Lions-Packers was no longer winner take all. Both teams were in the postseason. It was more like winner go home with a division title and a playoff game – and loser pack bags for the road.
OK, not as thrilling as putting your soul on the chopping block. But still, the Lions had a chance to win a title they haven’t won in 23 years, bring the first-ever playoff game to Ford Field and, most importantly, show they are not a permanent doormat to the snow-packed boots of the Packers.
This was a chance to exorcise demons, a chance for Stafford to pull a brass ring higher, a chance for the defense to rinse away the awful taste of last year’s Hail Mary embarrassment to Green Bay – a 61-yard heave by Rodgers on a final free play that somehow became a touchdown. The NFL called that “The Miracle in Motown.” But it was just more mud around here.
Sunday night could have erased all that. A win, and the Lions were into the playoffs as division champions for the first time in 23 years. A win and Detroit would see its first home playoff game in 23 years. A win, and Stafford could claim at least one big battle against Rodgers.
A win, and Caldwell could lift his chin slightly higher, like a coach who knew what he was doing all along, not one who has to keep talking about next week, because this week was ugly.
“Regular season — done,” Caldwell declared. “It was a regular season where our guys earned the right to be right where they are today. It might not have been pretty, but we’re here, and it’s our job to take advantage of it.”
I agree, they won nine games and earned the right to be in the postseason. Barely.
I also agree, it was not pretty.
Especially the last three weeks.
A Packer pain
A win Sunday night would have changed all that. Instead, the 9-7 Lions see another bundle thrown onto the trash pile that Green Bay has been stacking on Detroit for decades:
Remember? There was the 1994 playoff game, when Brett Favre hit Sterling Sharpe in the last minute for the win — which started a 23-year curse of no playoff games in the Motor City.
There was the 2008 finale, where the Packers beat the Lions as the final nail in their miserable 0-16 season.
There was the 2012 finale defeat that gave the Packers the NFC North title and the Lions a road playoff game in New Orleans that got them crushed.
There was the 2014 season that did the same thing, a title and home game to Green Bay, a second-place finish and road defeat for the Lions.
And of course, there was last year, when, on a Thursday night nationally televised contest, the Lions watched Rodgers throw that Hail Mary that made Detroit’s defense a late-night talk-show punch line.
“Packers over Lions when it counts” had been as predictable as Charlie Brown when Lucy holds the football.
And it hasn’t changed.
On Sunday night, the Lions kept it close for a while, but they simply could not contain Rodgers when they had to – not his arm, not his feet. The skillful yet slippery Packers quarterback had predicted his 4-6 team would “run the table” in its last half-dozen games to win the division and make the postseason. He delivered on his promise, particularly on that backbreaking scramble in the fourth quarter, where he chewed up at least eight seconds before whipping the pass to a diving Allison for a nine-point lead, 23-14.
“He made a great catch, I think,” Rodgers told NBC. “I didn’t see it.”
That about says it all. Despite the fact that Green Bay kept going backward with penalties, Detroit could not get the Packers off the field.
In the second half, the Lions surrendered a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive and, in the final minutes, an 11 play, 75-yard drive. How much more real estate can you give up – and at home?
On all three drives, Rodgers was simply too elusive, too effective on the run. It was like trying to catch an eel. He finished with four touchdowns, 300 yards passing, and 42 yards rushing on 10 attempts – a better average than any Detroit running back. And that doesn’t measure all the yards he racked up running away from Lions defenders.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ offense could only manage a field goal when it counted in the second half, with Stafford seeming to be affected by the gloved finger that for previous weeks hadn’t bothered him. His passes sailed. Or maybe his receivers ran the wrong routes. “We gotta be on the same page,” Stafford admitted.
A first-half attack of mostly Zach Zenner (16 carries in the first two quarters) withered into a more slipshod approach in the third and fourth, and the Lions could not get anything going until it was way too late.
Typically, in the final seconds, they were throwing passes before a half-empty stadium. They made it close with a last-second touchdown.
But the onsides kick failed, and the final play was Rodgers taking a knee.
It was his only ineffective stretch all night.
Otherwise, Detroit could not get him off the field. He is too good. Green Bay is too well-coached. And the Lions are what their record says they are for now, a two-games-over .500 team.
No, that’s nothing to sneeze at in today’s NFL. Yes, making the playoffs sure beats the alternative. But they’re kidding themselves with all this talk about “forget it” and “it’s a new season” and “as long as we’re in, that’s what matters.”
They don’t give you medals for making the playoffs. There’s no banner from the rafters for grabbing the final wild-card berth. And when you’re coming off three straight defeats to the three toughest teams on your schedule, and you’re about to face the fourth, ignoring your tendencies will only make them continue.
The Lions travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks next Saturday night, in perhaps the toughest and loudest stadium in the league. By slipping in through the last slot, like a kid scooting into a concert as the doors close, they get to the show, but their seat is not so great.
Think about this: The Lions are 3-5 on the road, Seattle is 7-1 at home. The Giants, who the Lions could have hosted had they won Sunday night, are 4-4 on the road. They’ll go to Green Bay instead.
That’s’ what Detroit missed out on.
That, and a chance to change their Groundhog Day history. We congratulate the Lions on earning a playoff spot. We can hope for good things Saturday night. But we’ve seen this pattern before – Green Bay sends a Lions team on the road for the postseason, Lions team loses that postseason game.
In fact, we’ve seen this entire movie before.
It’s a new year, but an old scent – and some familiar colors. A Green Sunday. A blue Monday. They say that football never gets old. But this kind of football does.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.