November 18, 2012 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Dominic Raiola: Lions their own worst enemy

Detroit — Dominic Raiola, the Lions' veteran center, was still in his game pants more than a half-hour after Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Packers at Ford Field.

He sat next to his locker stall, his visage an obvious reflection of defeat, but also of disgust and disbelief. A season that began with such promise, with high hopes and expectations after last year's playoff breakthrough, lay in tatters before him, figuratively speaking.

And yet Raiola, the voice of the Lions' discontent for so many years, didn't want to talk about the big picture. Not with Sunday's loss — another one the Lions' practically gave away in a season that has slipped away — staring him directly in the face.

"I only want to talk about this game, talk about what happened this game," Raiola said. "Right now, (expletive) expectations. We're going to talk about this game. We can't be talking about what's going to happen Thursday (against Houston). I mean, that's how we got in trouble earlier in the season, talking about expectations."

Well, that, and some awful special teams play. And an offense that's simply incapable of scoring touchdowns early, or very often, whatever the reason. And a defense that bends but doesn't break until, occasionally, it does, at the worst possible moment.

Worst fears confirmed

Still, it was interesting to hear someone inside the Lions' den essentially admit what we've all been suggesting: On the heels of their 2011 success, the Lions failed to keep their eyes on the ball. And now that it's been unceremoniously yanked away from them, the way Lucy does to Charlie Brown, and the way this league does to so many up-and-coming teams, it's too late to do much of anything about it.

Too late to make amends for all the off-field nonsense in the offseason, too late to fill the holes in the roster created by injuries and the like, too late to rethink the draft strategy or the offensive philosophy.

Is the season over? That was the question posed to receiver Calvin Johnson after Sunday's loss. He laughed, sarcastically.

"The season's not over, man," he answered. "We've got six games left."

Do they honestly think they can make the playoffs, though?

"I don't know what the picture looks like, but that's what we're fighting for," said Johnson, who had five catches for 143 yards and a touchdown in the loss. "We're fighting for our lives."

Fighting among themselves, too, at times, as the Fox TV cameras noticed near the end of Sunday's game, with receivers coach Shawn Jefferson venting his frustrations about Young to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Head coach Jim Schwartz didn't want to talk about that after the game. Raiola didn't, either, for what it's worth. Or if he did, he chose not to publicly.

"You start with yourself," he said. "Everybody has to start with themselves. You start with yourself, that's all you can do. If you start pointing fingers, you cause separation. We've got a game in four days."

Asked if he noticed any fissures, Raiola said no.

"I don't think so," he said. "We've come too far as a team. … The coaches are going to coach. If you're messing up, you've got to stop messing up, everybody."

Everybody had a hand in messing this one up. But Raiola, more than most, was the one trying to put words to the feelings in the Lions' locker room.

More of the same

It's a role the 12-year vet became accustomed to for most of his first decade in the NFL, as his team set records for futility. But this team? This team wasn't supposed to be like all those others.

Yet they are, most surprisingly on offense. On Sunday, Matthew Stafford & Co. began the game with consecutive three-and-outs, sandwiched three drive-killing turnovers around halftime, then came up empty in the clutch.

The lone fourth-quarter score was a chip-shot field goal — not a game-clinching touchdown — that left many in the Ford Field crowd of 63,716 feeling a sense of impending doom. The Lions had first-and-goal at the 10 with a 17-14 lead and 5½ minutes left, but ran the ball twice — really? — for a net 1-yard gain before Stafford threw incomplete to Titus Young on third down.

"When we get the ball down there, we've got to punch it in," Raiola said. "We could have made that a two-score game."

Instead, they left the Packers time and opportunity, then watched as the defense gave up three big plays — and the lead — on the ensuing drive.

"We didn't make plays when we were called upon to make plays, we made mistakes," Raiola said. "I sound like a broken record, but that's what it is right now. It's a tough pill to swallow right now."

They have no choice but to take their medicine, of course. The outlook's beyond gloomy, sitting at 4-6 overall and 0-4 in the division, with the Houston Texans (9-1) visiting Ford Field on Thanksgiving. And that reality was still setting in after Sunday's loss in a jarringly quiet locker room.

After the media was allowed in, Raiola huddled privately with a succession of teammates, including the other fixture on the Lions' offensive line, Jeff Backus. He'd been forced to leave the game late in the second quarter with a hamstring injury that'll likely snap his consecutive games streak at 186 games — third-most among active NFL players.

"It's hard to replace a rock that's been there for 12 years — it's just different without him out there," Raiola said. "We're going to miss Jeff. I miss him out there. This is a tough one."

Tough to swallow, tough to explain, tough to forget, too.

"That's the only thing we can do right now. Just come out and beat the Texans," Raiola said. "We can't control anything else. We can't go backwards, we can't press rewind, can't press reset. We have to come out here in front of a live audience — that's what's next."

And hope it's not another replay, I guess.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Lions center Dominic Raiola, left, only wanted to talk about Sunday's loss to the Packers, and not the bigger picture. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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