The Detroit Lions might eventually look back on the last month of football and wonder how the outlook on an entire season went from so bright to so disappointingly dim.
There the Lions once stood, atop the NFC North at 6-3, looking down at two rivals missing their starting quarterbacks and with rosters riddled by injury. It was, in essence, the golden opportunity for the healthy and suddenly confident Lions to put insurmountable distance between themselves and the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
A month and three blown leads later, and the Lions have to be contemplating how the recent failures in the fourth quarter will hinder their chances to win a division championship for the first time since 1993.
The latest collapse during the final 15 minutes came on Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles blitzed Detroit for 28 fourth-quarter points after the Lions had previously built leads of 14-0 and 20-14. Detroit controlled the game for the better part of two-and-a-half quarters but still lost by 14 points, 34-20.
Soon after, the dreaded words "soft" and "panic" were being tossed around the Lions locker room.
"It’s not fun to lose and go out there and play soft,” Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “We just played like crap in the second half.”
Physically soft? And mentally weak?
"A little bit, man," Levy said. "When we feel the momentum switch, we’ve kind of got to get guys together and not panic and stay focused and keep battling."
The fourth quarter hasn't been kind to the Lions in any of the three losses over the last month.
In Pittsburgh, Detroit held a 27-23 lead going into the final quarter. But instead of putting away a three-win team, the Lions proceeded to get blasted by the Steelers during a 14-0 run in the fourth.
Detroit's fake field-goal attempt early in the quarter resulted in a lost fumble and points being taken off the board. From there, Pittsburgh dominated. A methodical 97-yard touchdown drive was followed by a lazy interception from Matthew Stafford and another Steelers touchdown.
*Lost fumble, INT
Overall, Pittsburgh tallied 128 yards and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. The Lions managed just 17 yards on 16 plays, plus two turnovers and zero points.
A team could be forgiven for one week of playing poorly in the fourth quarter, especially on the road against a Super Bowl quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger. But when a similar scenario played out the next week, against a rookie quarterback at home, the same excuses weren't applicable.
Once again, the Lions held a 21-17 lead over the two-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers to start the fourth quarter. And again, Detroit crumbled.
After Tiquan Underwood went 85 yards for a score just one minute into the period, the Lions used their next three possessions to put on a comedy reel of mistakes.
The first drive went seven plays and 10 yards and ended with a blocked punt. A lost fumble halted the second drive. And Calvin Johnson's drop inside the 10-yard line, when the Lions were within range to tie the contest, resulted in a game-ending interception.
*Lost fumble, INT
The Lions would lose by a single field goal. But it also took two missed field goals from Tampa Bay—following the blocked punt and again after fumble—to keep the score that close.
"We can't let this stay in our system too long," receiver Nate Burleson said afterwards, via ESPN.
And to the Lions' credit, they didn't. Just four days after letting the Bucs storm into Detroit and leave with a win, the Lions put a Thanksgiving beat-down on the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers that seemed to calm the stormy waters. For a moment's time, the Lions were again the darlings of the division.
Then Sunday came around, and the same demons that have haunted Detroit's last month reappeared in the snow globe that was Philadelphia.
Only seconds into the fourth quarter, the Eagles had tied the game at 14 on a 40-yard scamper from LeSean McCoy. While Jeremy Ross' ensuing kickoff return for a touchdown would briefly give the Lions a 20-14 edge, Philadelphia would go on to score touchdowns on its next three fourth-quarter drives.
Meanwhile, Detroit went three-and-out, lost a fumble on an arrant snap and then gained zero yards on four plays to close out the contest. It was another thud of a performance—on both sides of the ball—to finish a fourth quarter.
And the numbers from Philadelphia weren't at all pretty.
The Eagles out-gained the Lions 270 to seven over the final 15 minutes. Of Philadelphia's 270 yards, 227 came on the ground. Detroit rushed for zero yards and held the football for just 2:35 in the fourth quarter.
Oh, there's more.
Three times the Eagles busted a touchdown run of more than 35 yards, which marked the first time in NFL history a team had accomplished that feat in a single quarter. Philadelphia's 227 rushing yards were the most in a quarter since 1991.
LeSean McCoy, who finished with 217 yards rushing, had 148 of those yards in the fourth quarter alone. Coming into the game, the Lions hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in four quarters of a game all season.
Also, six of Detroit's nine penalties on the afternoon came during the final quarter.
All in all, Sunday in Philadelphia was the ugliest of fourth-quarter collapses, and that's saying something with these Lions.
"I'm puzzled by the whole situation," safety Louis Delmas said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.
Now, the Lions find themselves just a half-game up on the Packers, who beat the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The Chicago Bears could even up the division—at least in terms of wins and losses—by beating the Dallas Cowboys at home Monday night.
Any one loss over the final three games—which feature home contests against Baltimore and the New York Giants and a road game at Minnesota in Week 17—would open up the door for either the Packers or Bears to take the division.
It's a situation the Lions shouldn't be in, considering how well-off they looked a month ago. But it's also a situation Detroit has brought on itself by continually failing in the fourth quarter.