Even more favorably, Detroit faced the easiest remaining schedule of any NFL team. As Adam Schefter of ESPN noted:
That easy schedule began in Pittsburgh facing the 3-6 Steelers. Even though the Lions have not won in Pittsburgh since 1955, they were favored in this game.
The Lions started slowly, surrendering touchdowns on Pittsburgh’s first two drives. Then the Lions showed why they were favored and why they were in first place.
Detroit steamrolled the Steelers for 27 second-quarter points. That tied a team record set earlier in the season against Chicago in Week 4. The Lions scored touchdowns on drives of 79, 74 and 62 yards as well as two others capped by field goals.
The defense also rose up, forcing three three-and-outs and limiting the Steelers to just six points. It was the sort of dominant effort on both sides of the ball that pushed the Lions into a playoff front-runner.
After an uneventful third quarter where both teams struggled with a sloppy field and steady rain, the Lions still held the upper hand.
It all changed with one fateful decision by Jim Schwartz. With 4th-and-5 on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line and a 27-23 lead early in the fourth quarter, Lions coach Jim Schwartz opted to run a fake field goal.
It was a gamble that may haunt Schwartz forever.
Schwartz turned down an easy David Akers field goal, three points which would have pushed the Detroit lead to 30-23.
Instead, the roll of the dice crapped out on Schwartz. A highly questionable play call and a poor understanding of the weather conditions made the fake a dubious decision.
The play call had punter Sam Martin, who served as the holder, immediately jump up and take off over right tackle to try and pick up five yards. Yes, the design was to run the punter into a tight formation.
Keep in mind that skill position players on both teams were slipping and sliding like it was a Penguins/Red Wings game, not a Lions/Steelers matchup. Martin is a decent athlete but is not accustomed to running the ball in ideal conditions, let alone on a slick field against desperate defenders.
Also keep in mind that on such a short field goal, most teams don’t go aggressively after the block from the wings of the formation. The players typically don’t abandon positional integrity, yet that is an essential aspect of a successful fake like this.
Martin was easily wrapped up well shy of the 5-yard line. He fumbled when the third Steeler slammed into him, and the ball rolled forward to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.
The decision itself wasn’t completely without merit. After all, even in failure it turned the ball over to the Steelers deep within their own territory. The Detroit defense had been playing well, and Schwartz showed confidence in his defense.
When Pittsburgh mounted a 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to seize the lead, the fate of Detroit’s entire season may very well have changed. The Lions never regained any momentum, and the Steelers ultimately cruised to the 37-27 victory.
Jim Schwartz’s fate might have changed as well. Instead of running out to 7-3 and facing a highly favorable schedule with a shot at securing a first-round playoff bye, now his Lions are back in a dogfight for the NFC North.
The collapse in this game falls directly on Schwartz. No, the Lions did not execute well in the second half at any phase, but the botched fake field goal was the definitive turning point. Without that failed decision, the Lions stood a strong chance to win the game.
Schwartz’s impetuous decision puts the coach firmly on the hot seat. He had done a good job dousing the flames with comeback wins and a strong run into first place, but now the burners are back on high.
If the Lions fail to make the playoffs, it will be because of a collapse down the stretch. That collapse would come against the easiest schedule imaginable. Worse for Schwartz, it could be traced directly to one bad decision on his part, the fake field goal in Pittsburgh.
I do not believe Jim Schwartz will be coaching the Detroit Lions beyond this season unless the team makes the playoffs. General manager Martin Mayhew has stocked the team nicely with premium talent and comes off perhaps the best draft of the last 25 years in Detroit. Mayhew has done enough to save himself.
Somebody else will have to take the fall for the epic failure down the stretch. That somebody is Jim Schwartz. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, Schwartz has to be aware of the pressure on him. Many fans thought he should have been fired after last season, when a promising 4-4 start devolved into a 4-12 last-place embarrassment.
Schwartz didn’t even have to sacrifice a coordinator after that debacle. He convinced management that he had the right men for the job, and that he was the right man to continue leading the Lions.
He lit the pilot on his own fire, and he splashed some gasoline on it with the loss to Pittsburgh.
Fortunately for Schwartz, he still has time to cool the burners. Wins in the next two weeks over lowly Tampa Bay and a Green Bay team almost certainly without Aaron Rodgers would put the Lions at 8-4 and still leading the NFC North.
His Lions will be favored in both games, and if Detroit wins them both perhaps the hot seat cools a bit. But losing at home to Tampa Bay next week would prove catastrophic for the Lions and for Schwartz.
Giving up control of playoff destiny would be bad, but missing the playoffs entirely would be fatal for Schwartz. He must win next week, and his Lions must rebound from his bad decision in Pittsburgh and hold onto a playoff spot. Otherwise, the Detroit Lions will have a new coach in 2014.