If the Detroit Lions aren’t going to the playoffs, nobody is.
At least that’s the way they’ve played the past two weeks. The Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have each come up against the Detroit Lions with eight wins and playoff aspirations, and both have come away with eight wins and lots of disappointment.
Both teams blew a major opportunity, not just because of the loss, but because of the circumstances around their respective playoff pictures.
The Packers could have caught the Bears as they were getting demolished by the New England Patriots last week. Instead, they finished last week still trailing by a game, lost their Pro Bowl quarterback and joined the Bears in losing to the Patriots this week.
The Buccaneers could have vaulted themselves into the wild-card race with the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants both losing, instead they’re 8-6 with the division out of reach.
These teams had everything to play for and came up short.
What did the Lions have to play for? Pride, draft position and the eradication of some incredibly long losing streaks.
Against the Packers, the Lions snapped a losing streak of five games and 19 games within the division. Against the Bucs, the Lions earned their first road win, their first overtime win and their first two-game winning streak since 2007.
With these two wins, the Lions have very likely ruined the postseason aspirations of both teams in games where the Lions had little else on the line aside from ruining the other team’s year.
It’s encouraging to see the Lions show up and play for pride. It’s easy to see this is a team that wants to win, regardless of the stakes. That desire is the first thing a team needs to win the types of close games the Lions have come up with in the last two weeks.
More encouraging, however, is the way the Lions have won their games. The wins have come by a combined seven points and both were a result of clutch defensive plays and late-comeback scoring drives. Both required the Lions to show up for a full 60-minute game, which has been an issue for who-knows-how-long.
This, of course, is the polar opposite of the Lions team that started the season (as well as the one that has taken the field for most of the past decade). That Lions team liked to make a habit of losing close games and collapsing via some combination of mental errors, defensive lapses and catastrophic penalties.
This week, it was the Bucs allowing a game-tying drive as time expired, the Bucs committing nine penalties for 65 yards (including one that negated a touchdown), and the Bucs settling for field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone.
It was also the Bucs who were able to send out their starting quarterback (not their third-stringer), and the Bucs who were previously undefeated against teams with losing records.
Even though over half of Josh Freeman’s wins have been due to fourth-quarter comebacks, it was the Lions that came out with the late-game heroics, with Drew Stanton leading back-to-back surgical drives down the field.
The first drive, a masterful two-minute drill run with no timeouts, put the Lions in chip-shot field goal territory where Dave Rayner was able to tie the game at 20 with time expiring.
The second drive was a march down the field featuring a well-balanced attack and solid execution when it mattered most. For a change, the Lions won a game by making the fewest mistakes, executing in clutch time, and playing 60 minutes.
The Lions also have also been getting great stuff out of some of their weakest units.
The Lions’ running game, led by a resurgent (or maybe just newly respected) Maurice Morris, has run for a combined 371 yards in victories the last two weeks. The offensive line, another perceived area of weakness, has had a great deal to do with that recent success.
The defense, by the end of this game, was missing five of 11 starters. Safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey both went down with injuries, and were replaced by John Wendling and C.C. Brown. The replacements hardly played lockdown defense, but the defense as a whole did not allow a touchdown after halftime. A pair of fourth quarter Buccaneer drives that ended in the red zone earned only three points each instead of seven, and that was ultimately left the window open for the Lions to come back late.
The Lions beat the Bucs with discipline, ball control, and a strong running attack. They beat the Packers with a relentless pass rush, opportunistic turnovers on defense, and fourth quarter heroics.
In other words, the Lions have beaten their last two opponents at their own respective games.
No word yet on whether they plan on deploying the Wildcat against Miami next week.