The key goes in, the engine growls, and now we find out whether it finally turns over.
The Lions have a chance this afternoon in Texas. A wildly important chance to silence all the echoes that haunt them. Win this playoff game, against a high-flying Dallas team some pundits see going to the Super Bowl, and it all ends. The “same old” talk. The repeating chorus of critics. The idea that Jim Caldwell winning is no different than Jim Schwartz winning, a gasp above the surface before another sink.
That’s how much a victory today would mean. That’s how uniquely awful the Lions are in the playoffs. Last victory, Jan. 5, 1992. Last championship, 1957. Last Super Bowl, never.
For teams like New England, Denver, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the playoffs are virtually an annual question: How far will we go this time? For Detroit, the playoffs are a pumpkin-turned-carriage. Are they for real? And how long before the pumpkin returns?
The Lions spent all week behaving as if last week never happened. What Green Bay embarrassment? The players talked about a new season, and the coach talked about looking ahead, never behind.
But the rest of us are neither players nor coaches, and looking behind is all we can go on. So in order for the Lions to win today, we can at least tell you — based on a mountain of experience watching — what they can’t do:
No more cases of the dropsies
They can’t throw passes at receivers’ feet or over their heads. Matthew Stafford must be accurate. No more “he shoulda had that one” or “he just missed that throw.”
They can’t drop passes that are in their grasp. No more Eric Ebron butterfingers. No more receivers running the wrong routes. No more pointing between quarterback and wideout, saying, “I thought you were going there.”
They can’t pass block so poorly that Stafford can’t see a passing lane. And they can’tlet off their blocks so quickly that Stafford gets hit after every throw.
They can’t keep running into the teeth of the defense on first down. Joe Lombardi’s play-calling — limited by the injured and average offensive line — is terribly predictable. But they can’t keep giving away downs.
They can’t go three-and-out. The Cowboys’ offense is a strength; three-and-out plays right into it. The Lions can’t underestimate the importance of converting at least one third down on any drive — and buying their defense some rest.
They can’t not trust their rush on third-and-short, then punt because a pass was less than perfect.
They can’t make boneheaded special-teams plays like: 1) touching live punts, 2) overrunning the coverage, 3) missing tackles on returns, 4) allowing field-goal attempts to be blocked, 5) drawing illegal blocking penalties and 6) booting kickoffs out of bounds.
No more ill-timed yellow laundry
They can’t drop interceptions when balls hit their hands, then slap their palms and smile.
They can’t draw stupid late-hit penalties.
They can’t not sack Tony Romo, and they can’t forget he has been away from the playoffs two years longer than Stafford and the Lions have. Romo’s track record in the playoffs is not good. He makes mistakes when pressured, and has plenty of career turnovers when he’s sacked multiple times. He’s 34 and playing hurt. They can’t not attack him.
They can’t save their worst for first, falling behind and then tightening things up. Detroit’s offense is not likely to climb from a hole at Dallas. It has to stay close.
They can’t be satisfied with playing hard, or say things, should they lose, like, “We had a good season; we’re just getting started.” Every year is a new start for NFL teams, and next season for Detroit brings a much harder schedule. The time to make a statement is now. If you think it’s all uphill once a new coach starts improving things, just look at Chicago, Atlanta or San Francisco.
So, there you have it. A list of can’t-dos. You may think some are stating the obvious, but isn’t that what you scream at your TV week after week? The obvious? You can’t block like that! You can’t drop like that! You can’t miss that!
The Lions have a chance today — a chance to shut down the noise machine for a long time. But if they play a repeat of their past few games, they will inevitably hear the same old complaints, and they won’t have the right to argue. Because one-and-done would be the same old result.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org.