New year, same old pain for Lions in playoff loss

ARLINGTON, Texas – The big guy cried. That’s how crushing a loss this was. Ndamukong Suh, a man better known for pummeling large people, couldn’t fight the tears when he tried to sum it up. He stepped away from the microphone, sniffing and wiping his eyes, then exited the room. When he came back, he referred to the game as “sickening.”

Yes, it was, if that means it made you heartsick — or seasick.

For 54 minutes, the Lions had the lead. For 54 minutes, they had pundits shaking their heads in disbelief. For 54 minutes, the critics were about to be silenced, history was about to be shelved, the phrase “same old Lions” was about to be fried into oblivion.

For 54 minutes.

But they play for 60.

And in a game that featured everything the Lions do well, everything they do poorly and, of course, some weirdness (because it wouldn’t be a red-letter Lions game without some weirdness), they surrendered 17 unanswered points and lost to Dallas, 24-20.

“We just didn’t have enough in the tank to get it done,” Matthew Stafford said. He threw for 323 yards and a touchdown, but his final play of the 2014 season was a fourth-down fumble on a sack, surrendered by Riley Reiff, a No. 1 draft choice.

Given their offensive line woes, I’d say that’s fitting.

Close? Yes. Hard-fought? Yes. Almost? Yes. But “almost” is all they get. They gave up a touchdown, a field goal and a touchdown on the Cowboys’ last three drives — aided by a critical pass interference flag that was picked up by the refs — picked up? — and followed by an unforgivable shanked punt that went 10 yards.

A little bad luck goes a long way in the playoffs.

It can leave you in tears.

“I just didn’t expect this outcome,” Suh said.

And if the Lions hated the burden of being a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years, well, get used to 24.

It started so well

The worst part is, they really had fans believing. Detroit came out so strong and so focused, that you actually believed the loss to Green Bay last week didn’t exist — which is what Jim Caldwell had been preaching the previous six days.

Instead, he told his guys to look around the room and lean on the teammates who had playoff experience.

So here, in the first quarter, was Golden Tate — who has a Super Bowl ring — taking a long strike from Stafford and eluding tackles for a 51-yard touchdown.

And here, minutes later, was Reggie Bush — who has a Super Bowl ring — scampering outside and cutting off blocks (actually, for one play, looking like Reggie Bush) and he scored to make it 14-0.

Here was the defense shutting down the four-headed Dallas monster of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten. At halftime the Cowboys had just 30 yards rushing. Romo, whose line is full of Pro Bowl protection, had been sacked three times. Bryant had one catch for two yards.

But the Lions surrendered one bad play — a 76-yard scoring strike when Romo found Terrance Wiliams streaking over the middle and DeAndre Levy slid off him as he took off for paydirt.

The missed tackle would be a theme. It would happen too often, at the worst times. A quad injury robbed the Lions of Rashean Mathis for much of the game, and his backups made too many mistakes. Lions sliding off Cowboys was the Instagram video of the day.

We can talk about the Lions starting the second half by throwing an interception. We can talk about them surrendering a fourth-and-6. We can talk about why, as Caldwell would say, “The first half, we were playing pretty well …but we just couldn’t sustain it.”

In the end, however, the play everyone was and will be talking about was that pass interference call that suddenly wasn’t. It was third-and-1 with less than nine minutes to go in the game, the Lions at the Dallas 46, clinging to a 20-17 lead. Stafford threw to a 17-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew (that in itself is a questionable move on third-and-1, isn’t it?) but linebacker Anthony Hitchens made contact and the two went down as the ball bounced away.

A flag was thrown, the crowd groaned, pass interference was called — not just signaled, called, announced, I heard it, I swear! — the ball was spotted and the Lions would have a fresh set of downs and at least makeable field-goal position.

“I thought it was a good call. … I thought it was a penalty,” Stafford later said. “It’s a big play in the game. … We get those yards there who knows, maybe we go score a touchdown and the thing’s out of reach.”

Even the TV announcers on Fox were confirming the pass interference. And then, incredibly, the refs picked the flag up.

Huh?

“I thought it was ridiculous,” Pettigrew said.

“I have never seen that in the history of me watching NFL football,” said safety Glover Quin. “But I saw it today. … What do you expect when you come to Dallas, you know?”

Well, I don’t know about that. But I’ve never seen it, either. The official explanation was that one official called defensive pass interference, and another thought the contact was minimal, that it was more of face-guarding, which is not a penalty in the NFL. The referee, Peter Morelli, actually told the pool reporter, “It would have probably been smoother if we got together.”

Only in a Lions game, right?

The change sent the Detroit punting team out, and Sam Martin picked the worst time of the year to shank the ball. It traveled 10 yards.

Ten yards?

Can’t happen.

Sickening.

The bitter end

 

You know the rest. In fact, if you’ve watched Lions football for any length of time, you KNEW the rest. The Cowboys took over at their 41, moved methodically downfield, converted a fourth-and-6, were helped by two Lions penalties (one on third-and-7, another gaffe by Levy) and finally, on third-and-goal from the 8, Romo got great protection and found Williams again in the end zone, as he was knocked down, too late, by Ziggy Ansah.

Romo watched the touchdown from his belly.

A few minutes later, Stafford watched his final fumble from his belly.

And therein lies the difference.

“This one sucks. It hurts,” said safety James Ihedigbo. “We left it all out there. … When you do that, and you come up four points short, it is heartbreaking. … This is a step in the direction of where we want to go. … We plan on being right back in this situation next year.”

I have a better idea.

Shoot higher.

The future …

Because you can’t help but think about what might have been had the Lions (who finished 11-6) played better the week before in Green Bay. A victory there, and they don’t even make this trip. Instead, they’re at home, healing their injuries, waiting for a team that might have turned out to be the Carolina Panthers — with a losing regular-season record — to come up this weekend and play them. In Detroit!

In that scenario, they are one home victory away from playing for a Super Bowl. They even have a scenario where they host the NFC championship. Instead, by laying an egg in Lambeau Field, they had to travel to Dallas, and today the season is over.

Now, you could say, “Well, it’s not so easy going to Lambeau and winning in December.” But that’s like saying it’s not easy being tall and fitting in an airline seat. It is what it is. It’s not changing. The Packers have been good for a long time, they don’t seem to be sinking any time soon, and if the Lions are ever going to sit pretty come the playoffs, they are going to have to outdistance the Packers in the regular season. Green Bay is the Bill Russell to Detroit’s Wilt Chamberlain. That doesn’t change this year. And it doesn’t change next year.

So the Lions can point to their defensive stats or Calvin Johnson or Golden Tate. They can say they are a team on the rise.

Stafford, I thought, had a better take on it all.

“Each year is different. Schematically, yeah, you can say it’s the start of something new … but who knows what our rosters gonna look like next year, who knows what our coaching staffs going to look like next year. … The biggest thing we can do … is use this to motivate us. I know it’ll motivate me. Just getting that close and having that opportunity and falling a little short is a tough pill to swallow. But I’m proud of the way we fought.”

They have a right to be proud. But they shouldn’t be satisfied. And the best way to escape the weird bounce and the terrible flag is to be so far ahead that it doesn’t matter.

 

The big guy cried. The quarterback shook his head. The best Lions season in decades ends the way the last seven postseasons have ended. One-and-out. One maddening, seducing, frustrating, teeth-gnashing, tear-inducing one-and-out.

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