November 25, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Mike O'Hara: Burning Questions

Lions' Thanksgiving tradition is safe, despite losing

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, left, has some words with Patriots players and coach Bill Belichick in the fourth quarter. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- It was a good show for a while -- and the same result in the end.

The Lions did more than play the role of tackling dummies for three quarters in a 45-24 loss to the Patriots in the annual Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field.

It was 24-17 when the Patriots broke the game open with four straight touchdowns, making the result obvious: The Patriots are the better team.

It was the Lions' seventh straight loss on Thanksgiving Day and no doubt will add volume to the question that gets raised with increasing frequency as they continue to pile on losing seasons.

The issue of whether the Lions are in jeopardy of being replaced as hosts for one of the NFL's three games on Thanksgiving Day ranks at the top of this week's burning questions.

Q. Are the Lions and the City of Detroit in any immediate jeopardy of losing the Thanksgiving Day game?

A. No. Not anytime soon. It might happen if they continue to lose for another decade, but no change seems imminent, despite occasional beatings to the contrary from media around the country.

Q. Detroit founded the Thanksgiving tradition in 1934. Dallas added a game in 1966, and a night game was put on the schedule for the NFL Network, making it a tripleheader.

What works in Detroit's favor to keep a game?

A. A league official at Thursday's game explained it in basic terms. One factor is that Detroit began the tradition of pro football on Thanksgiving. It gives Detroit some ownership.

Television is another factor. Ratings for the Detroit game don't fluctuate much from year to year, no matter who comes to Detroit to play the Lions.

Then there's the impact of taking away the game at a time when the franchise and the city are struggling. It would be perceived as kicking someone who's down, taking away part of a national identity.

In football terms, it would be piling on.

Q. Forget about the future. What was the difference in Thursday's game?

A. Two things in terms of the teams. The Patriots are the Patriots, and the Lions are still the Lions. It was a winner against a loser.

There was one thing in terms of players. Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He never panicked or lost composure, even after the Lions had a 14-3 lead, and wound up throwing four touchdowns.

Q. What were the Lions' biggest breakdowns?

A. They were on defense. Once the Patriots tightened up pass protection, the Lions secondary got shredded, and cornerback Alphonso Smith was the biggest culprit. The Patriots ran through him, by him and over him.

Q. Smith was beaten by Deion Branch on a 79-yard touchdown catch that made it 24-24 in the third quarter. How did Branch get so wide open?

A. To save space in this column, let's keep it to five or six things Smith did wrong.

It was third and 2, and Branch said he was the No. 2 option. When Branch ran by Smith, Brady found him and hit him in stride.

Coach Jim Schwartz made it clear Smith dropped coverage on the play.

"It was man-to-man coverage," Schwartz said. "We were looking in the backfield and didn't cover the guy."

After Branch made the catch across midfield, Smith flailed wildly at Branch three or four times, trying to tackle him. He struck out.

Smith wound up getting benched after Branch beat him on another touchdown catch.

Q. Schwartz was aggressive in play-calling. Twice he passed up field-goal opportunities on fourth down near the Patriots' goal line. The Lions converted both times: A first down led to a touchdown, and Maurice Morris ran a yard for a touchdown? What did that say?

A. The Lions weren't going to win by kicking field goals.

"We knew it wouldn't be a 10-7 game," Schwartz said. "We knew we needed to score touchdowns."

He was right. But they had to stop the Patriots from scoring touchdowns, and they couldn't.

Q. The Lions were penalized once in the first half, but reverted to form with seven in the second half. What was the difference?

A. It's a combination of discipline, composure and the ability to compete.

All season, the Lions have been lacking in those areas in situations that decide games.

Q. A first-down catch by tight end Brandon Pettigrew was taken away on offensive pass interference in the fourth quarter. It was still 24-24, and the Lions were driving. Was it the right call?

A. It looked like two players competing, not interference, but calls like that one go against the Lions for a reason.

"When you're a 2-9 football team, you're not going to get the calls," Schwartz said. "When you're a 9-2 football team, you're going to get those calls."

Q. What's the solution to that?

A. Don't be 2-9.