December 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Detroit Lions are so close, but far away from contention

Detroit -- It's a tired old lament, half truth and half trash. The Lions are always one play away, one game away, one season away, one half-century away.

That one play dangles like some mythical prize, forever just out of reach. When it's time to be defined, the Lions still wither pitifully. This was among the all-time worst, and you can pin it on many players, as long as you also blame the coaches, who apparently have no idea how to seal a game.

The Lions had the Colts beaten, right up until the final play. Andrew Luck made it, escaping pressure and dumping a fourth-down pass to Donnie Avery, who trotted in for a 14-yard touchdown as time expired. The raucous Ford Field crowd went immediately silent as the Colts swiped a 35-33 victory, and everyone bemoaned one play.

Except in the closing minutes, the Lions didn't make any key plays, just as they failed to do in crushing home losses to Houston and Green Bay. At 4-8, they blew their playoff chances long ago, but this was stunning. It ended timidly, with conservative play-calling and sloppy defense and Jim Schwartz trying so hard to conceal his anger, I thought he was going to bite through his tongue.

Of course, the defense couldn't stop Luck as he drove 85 and 75 yards, leading the Colts to 14 points in the final 2:39, wiping out the Lions' 33-21 lead. But the secondary is a hodge-podge of fill-ins that struggles to stop anyone.

The Lions are built around Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, who put on another number-crunching show. So why — WHY? — when the game could be clinched, did Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan turn it over to a running game that doesn't work? Why, attempting to drain the clock, did the Lions futilely run four of five times on their last drive, including third-and-5?

"That's the head coach's call, he wants the clock not to stop, so keep it on the ground," Stafford aid. "It's on us. It's one play away."

Players didn't question the play-calling, and also didn't make excuses about being short-handed. The team's symbol of immaturity, receiver Titus Young, wasn't in uniform because of insubordination, and when Ryan Broyles left with a knee injury, the Lions were scrambling.

Blame can go around

Discipline is Schwartz's responsibility and he's failed this season, no matter how you slice up all the tight losses. This wasn't about good Luck or bad luck or karma or curses. This is a franchise that lost for so long, perhaps it assumed once it won a bit, the direction was set. Doesn't work that way. You want it, you have to keep taking it.

Schwartz focused on the horrific defensive breakdowns, but the Lions should've sealed it earlier. On the only pass Linehan called during the final series, Johnson drew a pass-interference penalty. On third-and-5 from their 49, they ran Mikel Leshoure for 1 yard, giving the ball back to the Colts with 1:07 left.

"They were loading up pressure inside and we were trying to get outside of it," Schwartz said. "That's the right decision to make right there. It's after that we didn't get the job done."

Running the ball to bleed the clock is the right decision for most teams. The Lions aren't built like most teams, and they seem to forget that at the worst possible times.

They can't run the ball with much force, so expecting a 5-yard gain was foolish. Leshoure carried 21 times for a mere 57 yards, and if not for a 67-yard burst by Joique Bell, the running game would've been non-existent

Johnson was mostly unstoppable again, with 13 catches for 171 yards, and Stafford completed 27 of 46 passes for 313 yards. But this has to be the least-consistent, high-yardage passing offense in the NFL.

The Lions can put on a show at times. But stop me if you've heard this — when they have to make the tough play at a tense time, they've blown it. They settled for four field goals, wasting chances to pad the lead. Jason Hanson hit 'em all, although none as clutch as the 47-yarder he clanked off the upright in overtime last week against the Texans.

Familiar refrain

One play here, one misplay there. Nick Harris' 25-yard punt at the end was awful. Earlier, Drayton Florence collected one of the Lions' three interceptions and raced toward the end zone. But Jacob Lacey was called for a blocking penalty and they settled for a field goal.

Leading 33-21, the Lions had the Colts pinned at their 23, facing fourth-and-2. Stop 'em, game's over. Luck avoided pressure, ran for 8 yards and got 15 more when Nick Fairley was whistled for a horse-collar tackle.

On and on, again and again, and by the time the Colts took the final snap with four seconds left, the result almost seemed inevitable. Lions defenders followed receivers to the back of the end zone, leaving Avery as the fifth option. He scooted in easily for the score, as Cliff Avril slammed his helmet and the Lions slumped in the too-familiar pose of frustration and disgust.

"It hurts because this is not the same Lions team," center Dominic Raiola said. "The talent is totally different than when we were losing those games back in the day. I know that sounds like a broken record."

It sounds like another broken season, another batch of broken hearts. If the Lions ever get consistently good, maybe it won't come down to one play so often. Until then, they are exactly what they keep showing, a team still not ready to win anything.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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Coach Jim Schwartz and his staff has to share in the responsibility in the Lions' downward spiral. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News