Thirty-three points at home, in the NFL, ought to win you a boatload of football games. You score 33 points, your offense should be on the sideline, laughing and joking in the waning moments. Or better yet, on the field, the quarterback kneeling down, the clock draining away.
You have a 12-point lead, at home, in the NFL, with less than five minutes to play? The only sound should be that of nails being pounded into the opponents' coffin.
Yet there was Matthew Stafford, the gunslinging Detroit Lions quarterback, kneeling all right—but his knee was on the sideline, his head bowed, as if in prayer. He couldn’t bear to watch. His counterpart for the Indianapolis Colts, the rookie Andrew Luck, was a hot knife, and Stafford’s team’s defense was butter. Stafford couldn’t bear to watch, and who could blame him?
The CBS cameras caught Stafford, during the Colts’ final, game-winning drive, alternately staring up at the jumbo TV on the Ford Field scoreboard and covering his eyes. He was speaking, non-verbally, for the entire Lions fanbase.
The Lions scored 33 points, had intercepted Luck three times, had rarely trailed in the game, were playing at home and Calvin Johnson set a career high for receptions in a single game (13).
Yet Stafford couldn’t bear to watch the ending.
You think the Green Bay Packers would have let that game slip away at Lambeau Field? You think the New England Patriots would have coughed it up in their stadium? The Pittsburgh Steelers in theirs? The New York Giants in their house?
That would be four big-time NOs.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. More games in the NFL are lost than are ever won. More games are decided by the plays that weren’t made than by the ones that were.
If you break down a typical NFL game—and it’s amazing how many of these things are decided by a touchdown or less—you’re more likely to be talking about the plays the losing team didn’t make. A typical NFL game breakdown is filled with coulda, shoulda and wouldas, along with a healthy dose of ifs, ands or buts.
The Lions have just lost three straight games in their own building, at a time when they could have lifted themselves back into the playoff picture, and all of them after they held the lead at the two-minute warning.
Imagine the Tigers blowing three straight games in a pennant race, all in the ninth inning or later.
Or the Red Wings coming from ahead to lose three straight games in a playoff series.
Hey, imagine the Red Wings playing, period.
The good teams in the NFL—the ones annually playing in January—simply don’t lose the types of games the Lions have lost in 2012. Or throughout the inglorious history of Detroit football, as far as that goes.
Just off the top of the head…
The 5-0 playoff loss in Dallas. The 1980 Thanksgiving Day stunner to Chicago, on a kickoff return in overtime. Eddie Murray, wide right, in the 1983 playoffs. Sterling Sharpe, wide open in the end zone in the 1993 playoffs. Barry Sanders: 13 carries for minus-one yard in the 1994 playoffs. Laying an ostrich egg in Philadelphia in the 1995 playoffs. Taking the wind in overtime in 2001. Jim Schwartz’s ill-timed challenge flag on Thanksgiving, not two weeks ago.
And what happened on Sunday against the Colts.
It really was no mystery, the game-winning play. Colts receiver Donnie Avery ran the perfect safety valve route, bleeding off the line of scrimmage in the flat, available in case Luck found no luck in the end zone. The Lions lost containment of the QB, and that was the death knell. After that, it was a simple pitch and catch, and Avery waltzed into the end zone, just like you and I could have done.
You hear a lot of talk about two-minute offenses. The Lions need a two-minute defense.
The Lions are a defense that can make interceptions between the 20s, make a sack in the first quarter, stuff a run in the third quarter and get a three-and-out on the first series of the fourth quarter.
They cannot do any of the above when the game is truly on the line.
You can crab all you want about the Lions’ conservative play-calling on their final drive on offense, when a 3rd-and-5 could have, perhaps, been converted with a pass, in effect ending the game with two minutes to play because the Colts had no timeouts.
You can crab about that, and you’d have a valid point.
But the Lions’ two-minute defense is too often bereft of playmaking. See? We’re talking about plays that weren’t made.
The two-minute defense is one that says, “OK, you made the score close. That’s all well and good. Now here’s my foot on your throat. And here’s me applying pressure.”
There’s no way that the Packers, Patriots, Steelers or Giants surrender that game-winning drive to a kid on their home turf; I don’t care how wise he is beyond his years. Those teams would have made the key stop. They would have made the interception, or forced the fumble, or gotten the back-breaking sack. They certainly wouldn’t have allowed their opponents anywhere near sniffing distance of the end zone.
The Lions, despite their brief rise to respectability in 2011, still do not know what it takes to win football games that are not blowouts. It is tempting to say they are incapable. That may be harsh, but the truth is this: The longer it takes you to win these close games—the more times you end up on the wrong end of the score—the harder it is to believe in your ability to do so.
I don’t know if the Lions thought something bad was going to happen on the final Colts drive. But they didn’t play with any killer instinct whatsoever.
Here’s hoping that GM Martin Mayhew, who has to be taking some heat sooner or later, will seriously address the defense in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The Lions need difference-makers in the worst way on that side of the football.
They need players who have to be accounted for. Players who are whirling dervishes on the field, swarming to the football and tackling in a no doubt manner. Ball hawks. Speed demons who can chase QBs and RBs down, laterally.
The Lions have no two-minute defense. They afford no assurance to an offense that gives them 33 points to work with. They were given 31 points on Thanksgiving against the Houston Texans, and you saw how that turned out, though there were guilty parties on offense that day, to be sure.
The Lions gave up 160 yards worth of offense to the Colts on Indy’s final two drives, which each ended in touchdowns.
They are 4-8 for a reason.