With everything around them falling uncharacteristically into place earlier this season, the Detroit Lions have predictably thrown it all away during a five-game stretch that has now robbed the team of control of the top spot in the very winnable NFC North.
What's left of the mess—two games in which the Lions must win and then get help from both the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers to make the postseason—leaves many more questions left to be answered about the short-term and long-term future of the franchise.
Mostly, how did this happen—again? Who is to blame? How does it get fixed?
There are only a few aspects of this debacle unworthy of blame.
The Lions have a roster filled to the brim with talent, and it's one that should win—and win big—in today's NFL.
General manager Martin Mayhew has put in place a 25-year-old franchise quarterback, the game's most dominant receiver in a generation, a pair of complementary and productive running backs and arguably the NFL's single-most disruptive defensive line. Even his 2013 draft has brought in a number of impact players.
There are holes on the roster, sure. But overall, Mayhew has followed the blueprint for thriving in the ever-evolving landscape of the NFL.
The Lions can't blame the schedule either.
After starting 6-3, Detroit was set to face a rather "soft" schedule, at least in 2013 terms: at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Green Bay, at Philadelphia, vs. Baltimore, vs. New York Giants and at Minnesota. Overall, those teams were a combined 22-41 ahead of Week 11.
At the time Detroit played the first three teams, the Steelers had three wins, the Buccaneers had just two and, the Packers were winless without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Lions were favored in all three of those games but came out of the stretch just 1-2.
The loss to the NFC East-leading Eagles could be somewhat excused by the nearly foot of snow layering the field in Philadelphia. But the Eagles were playing in the same conditions and clearly handled the weather better than the visiting Lions, who gave up 28 points in the fourth quarter.
Then came Monday night. With everything on the line, the Lions once again came up short.
Three turnovers and a litany of both big penalties and missed opportunities allowed the Ravens to arrive in Detroit, kick six field goals and leave with a win before a national television audience.
Of course, Baltimore had its own playoff dreams to chase. But in losing Monday night, the Lions allowed the team's destiny to fall into the hands of two teams that have no business still being in the playoff hunt: the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
Few other times in the last 20 years has the NFC North—formerly known as the NFC Central—been set up as nicely for the Lions to win it as it is this season.
The Packers started 5-2 and looked like a runaway winner, but they proceeded to shrink once Rodgers fractured his collarbone on Nov. 4. Green Bay suffered through a 0-4-1 stretch that should have all but eliminated the Packers from the playoff hunt.
The Bears began 3-0 but then went on a 1-3 stretch before their bye week and a 2-3 stretch after. Along the way, Chicago dealt with its own injuries at quarterback, as Jay Cutler missed five games with groin and ankle injuries.
Most were rightfully ready to crown the healthy, 6-3 Lions as division champions. Some even wondered aloud if 12 wins and a first-round bye were in the cards.
For a number of reasons, trusting this team was a mistake.
For all the talent littering the roster, the Lions remain inconsistent, undisciplined and mistake-prone.
On Monday night, Detroit went 4-for-13 on third down, committed eight penalties—of which, three gave Baltimore first downs—and had three turnovers. On the season, the Lions have the eighth-most penalties (97) and the second-most turnovers (31). They also lead the NFL in dropped passes.
These shortcomings fall partly on the players but more so on head coach Jim Schwartz. We are now five years into his run, and the Lions are still a unbalanced mix of talent, bravado and football immaturity.
Who is most to blame for the Detroit Lions' most recent collapse?
And keep in mind, the problems plaguing these Lions are far from new. Detroit was 27th in turnovers and 25th in penalty yardage last season, when the Lions lost their final eight games and finished 4-12. In 2011, Detroit committed the third-most penalties (128) for the second-most penalty yardage (1,075).
The result? A catalog of late-season collapses. Since Schwartz took over in 2009, the Lions are 7-15 in regular-season games in December and January.
Expecting these problems to magically vanish with the same people in charge is borderline crazy.
In all fairness, Schwartz did an admirable job of lifting the Lions out from one of the darkest times in NFL history. Few thought it possible to bring Detroit from an 0-16 season in 2008 to 10-6 and a playoff berth just three seasons later. But Schwartz did just that, and he was rightfully rewarded with a contract extension that keeps him paid by the Lions through 2015.
Yet the Lions brass now has to ask a few simple questions: Is mediocrity acceptable with this much talent (the Lions are 29-49 since 2009)? And can Schwartz ever be a Super Bowl head coach?
If both answers are no—and most of the evidence is suggesting so—then it's time to move on from Schwartz and restart the program.
Source: Pro Football Reference
The Lions might already think so. Ian Rappoport of NFL.com reported on Monday that Schwartz likely needs to get Detroit to the postseason in order to keep his job past 2013. He's done so just once in four years. Any scenario in which he'd make it twice in five years became much more unlikely after the Lions fell to 7-7.
It's certainly possible that a coaching change could help Stafford, the most important player on Detroit's roster. His nosedive over the last five games has been one of the primary reasons for the Lions' collapse.
Stafford's three interceptions Monday night gave him 10 since Week 11. No other quarterback, including Geno Smith (eight) and Eli Manning (nine), have more during that stretch.
His other numbers over the last five games are just as disheartening.
Among the 32 quarterbacks with at least 75 attempts, Stafford is 31st in completion percentage (51.1) and 30th in passer rating (69.2).
Extend out the time span another two games, and Stafford's 16 total turnovers—13 interceptions and three lost fumbles—represent the most in the NFL. Overall, Stafford has 21 turnovers in 14 games this season.
With a chance to overcome Rodgers and Cutler and wear the NFC North crown, Stafford has stumbled his way back into third place.
Stafford's teammates and head coach came to his defense following Monday's contest, which saw the Detroit quarterback finish with a season-worst passer rating of 48.0.
“I like the character of our team, I like the toughness of our team, and I like our quarterback,” Schwartz said, via Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News. “Our quarterback is gonna bounce back, and he’s gonna play great over these next two games.”
Center Dominic Raiola maintained that pinning all the blame on Stafford is unfair.
“It’s a group effort,” Raiola said, via Chris McCosky of The Detroit News. “It’s not Matthew’s interception. We take that as a group. Let’s hold off on putting it all on No. 9."
Maybe, this group of Lions, when led by Schwartz, just isn't proficient enough to get Detroit where its talent suggests it should be.