November 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions wobbling between fraudulence and relevance

Jim Schwartz admits the Lions dont have much room for error. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Allen Park This was the fear, that the Lions weren't just built on a house of cards, but on a house of yards. Their offense stacks 'em high, as high as any team in the NFL, high enough to wobble.

If the Lions aren't frauds, now would be the time to show it. It starts Sunday at home against the Packers or it doesn't start at all. Until we see otherwise, the Lions are the least-productive productive team in football, piling up fancy numbers to dress up a 4-5 record.

The math path to the playoffs looks borderline hopeless, especially in the NFC North, with a brutal schedule. The next three games are at home, but they're against the Packers, Texans and resurgent Colts, a combined 20-7. Even if the Lions win six of their last seven, they'd be 10-6 and still not guaranteed a playoff spot.

It's not dead but it's dire, and it's about time the Lions acted like it at the start of a football game.

"I wouldn't call it desperate or dire," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said Monday, a day after his team's 34-24 loss at Minnesota. "I think our word is urgent. We don't have a whole lot of wiggle room for mistakes down the stretch. We have to play our best."

Still waiting

Even when the Lions went 10-6 and reached the playoffs last season, their trend was troubling, needing huge rallies to pull out victories. It's a dangerous way to play, and it's hard to keep up. Their early production is still awful, trailing at halftime in eight of nine games, and their second-half comebacks have become more mirage than miracle.

The Lions offense ranks second in the NFL with 406.1 yards, trailing only the Patriots. Matthew Stafford is fourth among quarterbacks with 2,722 passing yards. Calvin Johnson leads all receivers with 974 yards, but has only two touchdowns. Even the defense, with a decimated secondary, somehow ranks 10th. But this team isn't about defense, which is part of the problem.

If you thrive by putting the ball in flight, the results can get a little flighty. It's been muttered for a while that the high-pass, low-run offense could be derailed. Their talented group defied convention last season but defenses have adjusted, jumping all over Johnson, denying big plays, and Stafford is finding it more difficult.

Running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell have provided short-range power, but the Lions are the only team in the league without a run longer than 20 yards. That means a lot of turf has to be chewed up in smaller chunks, and it only takes one mistake to stall it.

Incredibly, the Lions are averaging 10.5 points through three quarters of games — and 13.1 in the fourth. And how about this nugget, dug up by ESPN Stats & Information: Stafford was 3-for-10 against the Vikings when the margin was 10 points or fewer; 25-for-32 when it was more.

Are they waiting too long to unleash, or worse, are opponents sitting back after building a lead?

"We try our very best in the first half and the second half, it's just worked out that way," Schwartz said. "What is significant is that we have battled back. We haven't had those games that just completely slipped away.

"Rather than getting credit for that, I think it just emphasizes what we failed to do in the first half."

Odds are stacked

The Lions hate to hear this, but since they began their turnaround with a 5-0 start last season, they're 9-12 (counting the playoff loss to the Saints). They haven't beaten a team that finished the regular season with a winning record, although they notched a 28-24 victory over the 6-4 Seahawks two weeks ago.

I'm not calling for a revamping of the entire Lions philosophy here, but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has done a poor job adjusting. The loss to the Vikings was a referendum on the run-versus-pass debate. The Vikings were missing dynamic receiver Percy Harvin but rammed the incomparable Adrian Peterson for 171 rushing yards. Johnson had 207 receiving yards and it wasn't enough.

Schwartz isn't overly interested in the math, but the numbers are the numbers. With Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota all ahead of them in the division, and so many others in contention for the wildcards, the odds are daunting.

"We'll leave the math for the mathematicians and statisticians," Schwartz said. "The last two Super Bowl winners were 7-7 with two weeks to go." (Actually, the Giants were 7-7 but the Packers were 8-6).

Players have looked for other signs, too. Kicker Jason Hanson said the Lions saw what the Tigers did, rallying from an underachieving start to reach the World Series.

"The Tigers weren't the best, and then you get hot at the end and you can make a run if you get in," Hanson said. "But we haven't even given ourselves the right to think about that yet. We got the team to do it, character-wise. I hope the guys are ready to turn it up a notch, if we want a chance."

They're down to a slim chance against the toughest opponents possible — Packers, Texans, Falcons and math. Top quarterbacks are coming up, from Aaron Rodgers to Matt Schaub to Matt Ryan, to test their battered secondary. Yes, five of the final seven are at home. But if the Lions consider themselves furious finishers, they need to start by showing they're not fraudulent flashes.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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Calvin Johnson has caught two touchdown passes this season, despite ... (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)