November 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

If Lions really are ready for big stage, they certainly aren't showing it

Detroit — They weren’t ready for this, which is ridiculous. They weren’t ready for a game they were supposed to win, in a division race they were supposed to control. The Lions trotted out as if playing on a sandlot, all carefree and careless.

It was as bad as it gets for a team that was supposed to be past this nonsense. Matthew Stafford flung the ball recklessly, tossing four interceptions, and although they weren’t all his fault, this begins with him. The Lions need to do some quick, harsh self-analysis, because their 24-21 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday makes us reevaluate plenty.

If they’re not ready for this, against a 2-8 team, maybe they’re not ready for any of it — the pressure, the scrutiny, and yes, the freedom Stafford gets. When he’s on and Calvin Johnson is open and everyone is hanging onto the ball, the Lions (6-5) are a danger. When they’re off, they’re a danger to themselves. Thanks to the sludge in the NFC North, they’re still in first heading into their Thanksgiving Day meeting with the Packers.

But if the playoffs are the goal, how do you unleash this kind of mess? The Buccaneers tried to re-gift the game back, but oh no, the Lions insisted on giving it away. There were flukes and flubs, right down to Johnson’s inexplicable bobble at the Tampa Bay 4 with 50 seconds left, which turned into another interception.

Ultimately, the Lions got what they deserved. Stafford was outplayed and out-poised by Buccaneers rookie Mike Glennon, who didn’t throw an interception despite persistent pressure from the Lions defense.

“You can’t make bad decisions,” Stafford said. “I had a couple bad ones, a couple unlucky bounces. (We’ve had) the minus part of the turnover ratio for a long time now. We’ve got to get that fixed.”

'It's not our effort'

With four interceptions, a lost fumble by Kris Durham and a blocked punt, the Lions essentially lost the turnover battle 6-0. That doesn’t mean the Buccaneers were the better team, but it absolutely means they were smarter and more focused.

If the Lions thought they’d arrived just by sitting atop their division, the joke’s on them. And after this squandering, no one was laughing. Jim Schwartz had a hard time explaining it, while Reggie Bush talked solemnly about calling a players-only meeting.

“I didn’t get the vibe we were kind of riding high, but we definitely didn’t handle the situation the best way,” Bush said. “Our mindset just wasn’t where it needed to be. It’s not our effort, because we play as hard as anybody. It’s the little things, the mental errors, the turnovers. I felt like we were ready to play and we were going to dominate. But I guess not.”

They looked ready to dominate at any moment, outgaining the Buccaneers, 390-229. But the same thing happened in the second half last week in Pittsburgh, and it begins with Stafford’s tendency to get erratic. He finished 26-for-46 against the Buccaneers, but counting the Steelers game, he’s 14-for-39 in the past two second halves.

Those stumbles have kept Stafford from reaching true stardom, so far. One interception was a miscommunication between Stafford and Nate Burleson, and the pass deflected to linebacker Lavonte David. The next was a poor decision by Stafford late in the first half, as he threw too quickly toward Brandon Pettigrew. Buccaneers cornerback Leonard Johnson picked it off and sprinted 48 yards for a touchdown and a 17-14 halftime lead.

The third interception was horrible, with the Lions leading 21-17 in the third quarter. On first down from the Buccaneers’ 25, Stafford tried to zip the ball to Johnson in the end zone, and safety Keith Tandy easily plucked it. On the sideline, Stafford fired his helmet into the bench, angry at himself.

“We still wanted to be aggressive and take shots when you can,” Schwartz said. “There is a fine line of being aggressive and taking care of the football. In that case, that wasn’t one of those.”

'Confident in what we have'

Part of this is who the Lions are, and have to be. With Stafford and Johnson, they need to throw and take chances. We debated this endlessly after Schwartz’s too-aggressive fake field goal in Pittsburgh, but the answer to every mistake can’t be, hey, it’s just the way we play.

For instance, on the crucial interception in the third quarter, it was first down, not the time for a risky throw. Stafford is the unquestioned leader of this team, and that faith isn’t diminished.

The coaching staff allows him to free-wheel and free-lance, but he has to be more responsible.

It’s a difficult task with a talent as unique as Johnson. Basically, it’s this: Get him the ball! Don’t force him the ball! The Buccaneers put star Darrelle Revis on Johnson, but when Revis hurt his groin and was out, Stafford tried even harder to force the ball, with some disastrous results.

“I’m definitely confident in what we have,” Johnson said. “It’s just the turnovers. If we don’t have the turnovers, we can blow a team out.”

If the Lions took this game lightly, they’re kidding themselves. But how else do you explain the mental gaffes, one after the other, as if they were channeling their past? You know, just in case we’d forgotten.

“At the end of the day, if we win big, people are going to praise us and pick us for the Super Bowl,” Burleson said. “If we lose, people are gonna say these Lions suck and it’s the same old Lions. If we come back on Thanksgiving, take care of the ball, play the game we need to play, we will win.”

They should beat a battered Green Bay team, but no one wants to hear anymore what the Lions should do, or should be. It’s simple. If you think you’re ready for this, act like you belong.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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The Lions' Brandon Pettigrew questions a penalty late in the second quarter. Ill-timed penalties and five turnovers helped sabotage the Lions in a 24-21 home defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News