December 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Flurry of mistakes costs Lions another chance to control destiny

Philadelphia — Ever drop your keys in the snow?

Then you know how Matthew Stafford felt Sunday. And you know how the Lions feel today after getting snowed under at Lincoln Financial Field, blowing a 14-point second-half lead against the Philadelphia Eagles and failing — again — to seize firm control of their playoff fate.

That NFC North lead they’ve carried for the last month could be gone by the time the Lions finish digging out from Sunday’s 34-20 loss. And whatever designs the fans back home might’ve had on a potential division-clinching opportunity next Monday night at Ford Field were buried in a half-foot of snow and a half full of mistakes here in the City of Overly Optimistic Weathermen.

The forecast called for a chance of snow late Sunday afternoon, with accumulations of an inch or so. Yet by kickoff, the snow was coming down so hard the grounds-crew workers were the only ones who knew where the yard lines were. Players were scratching out footholds like cattle searching for winter nourishment.

And at one point in the second half, with the Eagles threatening to score, referee Ed Hochuli had to call an official timeout, saying, “I’ve got to stop the game a moment and clear the goal line. We can’t see the goal line.”

After the guys with the leaf-blower backpacks had scurried on and off, Hochuli turned his microphone back on to say, “Thank you.”

It was, as Eagles tight end Brent Celek put it, “insane.”

Hot start

And yet the crazy thing was, the team that plays in a dome — the team that, by my count, hasn’t won a game in wintry, below-freezing conditions since 1993 — was the one that seemed to be having all the fun for much of the afternoon.

The Lions’ defenders danced to the music during stoppages, sidestepping the workers shoveling snow. Linebacker DeAndre Levy tossed a snowball like a little boy. And Jeremy Ross, the California kid, even made a snow angel — “My first ever,” he admitted — after the first of his two special-teams returns for touchdowns gave the Lions a 14-0 lead midway through the third quarter.

But then just like the weather, the game turned in a flurry as the Eagles finally found their footing and the Lions lost their grip.

And by the time you saw that look on Stafford’s face — somewhere between surprise and sheer terror — as a shotgun snap from Dominic Raiola sailed over his shoulder and into a snowdrift behind him, you knew where this one was headed.

Trailing 28-20 after the Eagles’ third touchdown in six minutes in the fourth quarter, the Lions were reeling, sure. But they were finally on the move again after another big return from Ross and a 28-yard pass play to Joique Bell, who became their go-to back after Reggie Bush aggravated a calf injury in pregame warm-ups. (Not that anybody could see what happened with visibility limited to “about 5 yards,” according to Eagles air-traffic controller Nick Foles.)

Anyway, on the ill-fated first-down play, Stafford was busy motioning a receiver in, and he clearly wasn’t expecting the snap from Raiola. Stafford’s angry reaction after the play spoke volumes, as did the veteran center’s declined interview requests after the game.

It was the seventh fumble of the afternoon for the Lions, and the fifth botched snap for Stafford, who’d managed to corral the first four. (There’s a reason the Eagles all but gave up shotgun snaps Sunday.)

But this time as Stafford turned and frantically searched for the football, he picked it up only to drop it. The smart play, obviously, would’ve been to simply fall on it and eat snow. Build an igloo and wait out the storm.

“In retrospect, yeah,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “But you can’t play the game in retrospect.”

You can’t play it very well in these kinds of conditions, either. But that the Lions did for 2½ quarters — or at least did it better than the Eagles — made the second-half unraveling all the more difficult to explain.

Or not, depending on how deep you wanted to dig in.

“We just played like crap in the second half,” Levy said.

Snowplowed

And they did, there’s no arguing that. The NFL’s third-ranked run defense — a unit that had allowed a total of 186 rushing yards in their last five games — was gashed for 244 yards on the ground after halftime.

LeSean McCoy had runs of 57, 40 and 26 yards in the fourth quarter alone and finished with a franchise-record total of 217 yards. Chris Polk added the final insult with a 38-yard touchdown run following Stafford’s last fumble, and Philadelphia finished with 299 rushing yards for the day.

What happened?

The Eagles, whose up-tempo offense was relegated to “hurry up and sit” in the first half, coach Chip Kelly joked later, said they simply focused on running straight ahead out of their read-option looks. Lions defensive end Willie Young talked about the brutal “slip-and-slide” conditions, though as more than one player noted afterward, “We all played in the same snow.”

Levy, for his part, blamed the breakdowns on “missed fits,” mostly. But the way McCoy made them look like misfits in the fourth quarter, the Lions’ linebacker also used another four-letter word that football players hate to hear. And it wasn’t “cold” or “snow.”

“I mean, it’s not fun to lose and go out there and play soft,” he said.

Soft?

“A little bit, man,” he said. “I think mentally and physically soft. … I think everybody on defense had a breakdown here or there that hurt us.”

And considering what they’d just endured, saying that stung even more than the cold or the snow ever did Sunday.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is crunched by the Eagles' Patrick Chung for an incompletion in the fourth quarter Saturday. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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