November 12, 2012 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Detroit Lions state the obvious: Odds long for postseason

Minneapolis -- Jim Schwartz didn't like the sound of the word. His players didn't particularly care for it, either.

"Desperate," the Lions coach said, "is not a very good word to use."

But after Sunday's 34-24 loss to the Vikings, it's as good as any you'll find to describe where the Lions and their postseason hopes are at right now.

They've fallen to 4-5 on the season and 0-3 in the NFC North after getting trampled by Adrian Peterson and the Vikings before a crowd of 64,059 at Mall of America Field.

"Our shot for the playoffs, it's kind of slim," admitted cornerback Chris Houston, who was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. "But if we come back and win these three home games, we'll still have a shot."

He's right, I suppose. But that's a big "if," considering the next three games at Ford Field are against Green Bay, Houston and Indianapolis. Not exactly easy pickings for a team that has yet to prove — this season or last — it can beat the league's better half with any consistency.

Certainly not the kind of consistency they'd need to reach the playoffs now, forced to win at least five — and probably six — of their last seven games against what was already the NFL's toughest second-half schedule.

"It's gut-check time now," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said, turning his attention to the Packers. "There's no tomorrow."

Today, though, they'll be forced to view the film from another stomach-turning effort, as the Lions again played right into a vulnerable opponent's hands.

'Must-win' situation

The Vikings were without their all-purpose star Sunday, with Percy Harvin out because of an ankle injury. They'd lost three of their last four games, thanks to some shaky quarterback play and a porous run defense. For Minnesota, the bye week was looming, as was the .500 mark.

"We weren't at a 'must-win' situation, but it was dang close," defensive end Jared Allen said. 'It was more like a 'better-win' situation."

What better way to rebuild their confidence, then, than to face the Lions, given their notoriously sluggish starts? Scott Linehan's offense has scored just one first-quarter touchdown all season, and the Lions have managed just one halftime lead.

Sunday, it was the same, old story, as Matthew Stafford & Co. sputtered early, netting just 21 yards on three first-quarter drives. The Lions staked the Vikings to a 10-0 lead that stoked the crowd at the old Metrodome, a place that remains a loud reminder of this team's past misery.

It was poor coverage — a coverage the Vikings said later they knew was coming — that allowed the Vikings' first score. Rookie Jarius Wright, making his NFL debut with Harvin hurt, beat the Lions' patchwork secondary deep for a 54-yard touchdown. ("He pretty much outran the coverage and outran me," safety Erik Coleman said.)

But the Lions' front four had a hand in that one, too, allowing Christian Ponder to move up in the pocket and make what Schwartz disgustedly called "a javelin throw."

"He got about three crow hops before he threw it," he said.

And it was a short trip from there — as the crow flies — to another dejecting Lions loss. Stafford's receivers struggled to get open early, he struggled to keep his composure in the pocket, and the entire offensive unit struggled again with costly mistakes. A crackback block here, a dropped pass there, and so on. The end result, Stafford said, was too many "third-and-extra-long" situations.

"And that's a defense that's gonna be able to take advantage of that more times than not," added Stafford, who'd converted 20-for-28 third downs the last two weeks but was 1-for-9 Sunday.

That lone third-down conversion came on the Lions' final drive of the game with less than four minutes to play and the outcome already decided.

"It seems like we were having one bad play that was hurting us on every series," left tackle Jeff Backus said.

'We had our chance'

Of course, like they always do, the Lions did give themselves a chance with a fourth-quarter rally. Stafford hit Titus Young for a 1-yard touchdown to pull within 24-17 with 11:32 left, and the defense responded with a three-and-out. Stefan Logan even added to the momentum with a rare big play on special teams, returning the ensuing punt to midfield.

But then Backus was flagged for holding on a first-down toss sweep, Mikel Leshoure dropped a pass on the next play, and before you knew it, it was third-and-extra-extra-long.

"If you're looking for a turning point," Schwartz said, "that was it."

The Lions were forced to punt and, as it turned out, the defense was forced to stop Peterson — better known as "Purple Jesus" in these parts, and for good reason — one time too many. He broke off a 19-yard run on the first play, then a 61-yarder for a touchdown on the next to put the game away.

"We had our chance on offense," center Dominic Raiola said. "We didn't do our job. We were supposed to go down and tie the game. That's our job. We didn't do that."

And since they couldn't, the job that's left is that much tougher. It's not impossible, but, as Allen would say, it's dang close, even if they don't want to think about it in those kind of "desperate" terms.

"We're not gonna sit here and hang our heads too long," Backus said. "Because it's a long season. We still have a lot ahead of us."

It's a long season. One after another, the Lions' players kept repeating that phrase after the game. The more they said it, though, the more it sounded like wishful thinking.

Because the way they played Sunday — and the way they've played on too many Sundays the last two months — this season likely won't be long enough.

NFC North

(Team) ... (W) (L)

Chicago ... 7 2

Green Bay ... 6 3

Minnesota ... 6 4

Detroit ... 4 5

Sunday's scores

Minnesota 34, Detroit 24

Houston 13, Chicago 6

Green Bay idle

john.niyo@detnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

The Lions' shot at the postseason, as demonstrated by DeAndre Levy's attempt to haul down the Vikings' Toby Gerhart, will be a stretch. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News