December 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Jim Schwartz's job on the line as Lions' playoff hopes teeter

Mistakes like a botched snap between Dominic Raiola and Matthew Stafford against the Eagles have been a source of frustration all season for the 7-6 Lions. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — The Lions have so many labels stuck to their foreheads, it’s hard to keep track. They’re aggressive and maddening and talented and dirty and brash and fearless and undisciplined. Nobody can define them because they can’t define themselves.

They’d better do it now, or it’ll be time for a major change. The Lions are a reflection of their coach, Jim Schwartz, and quarterback, Matthew Stafford. They take chances, consequences be damned. Teetering at 7-6, although still tied for first in the NFC North, consequences are calling.

If the Lions don’t make the playoffs, with all the ideal circumstances handed to them, Schwartz should be gone. The Fords generally don’t apply heavy heat, but for the first time in a while, you can say the Lions have legitimate talent, and if they don’t win the division, it’s ridiculously wasted.

The three-game sprint begins Monday against the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens at Ford Field. I expect the crowd to be frenzied and the Lions to play that way. They’ll make dynamic plays and the national audience will marvel at Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and all that ferocity, even as everyone waits to see if the Big Gaffe happens.

If the Lions win out — against the Ravens and Giants at home and Vikings on the road — they win the division. Not only is that possible, it still should be demanded. In fact, you could argue Schwartz should have to win a home playoff game to guarantee his return.

If not now, when?

Whenever Detroit seems to be gaining control, whether building a 6-3 record or a 14-0 lead in the Philadelphia snow, it pulls a staggering blunder or two. The Lions have personnel holes, especially in the secondary, but it’s not asking too much to maintain command of a broken-down division. General manager Martin Mayhew had a very good offseason, adding Reggie Bush and revamping the offensive line with two rookie starters. They finally have some depth, and obviously a few supremely talented players. I don’t know if Mayhew is safe, but he’s safer than Schwartz.

A month ago, the Lions were 6-3 with a favorable schedule, while their chief competitors were missing their quarterbacks. The Bears (7-6) have persevered in Jay Cutler’s absence with former Lions player Josh McCown. The Packers (6-6-1) have hung around without Aaron Rodgers. The Lions have been mostly healthy and lost three of four, committing 15 turnovers in the process.

It comes down to concentration and attention to detail, which comes down to coaching. And Stafford absolutely has to be better too, especially late in games. Sorry, but Schwartz can’t explain away the miscues with variations of, “Hey, we’re aggressive, that’s who we are.”

The Lions embrace the perception of nasty rambunctiousness — or at least Schwartz doesn’t discourage it. He shrugs at some of the penalties. He says that’s how they play, they’re not afraid. In the team’s defensive line room, “I ain’t scared!” is plastered in blue letters on the wall.

The Lions aren’t a soft team, although they can wobble mentally. They tend to be careless, even reckless, and they don’t seem to fear repercussions. In his fifth season, Schwartz is 29-48. He got a contract extension before last season that helped him survive the 4-12 disaster, but he’s an insightful guy and has to know his job is in jeopardy.

The Fords don’t say it, but I guarantee this — if Bill Ford Jr. is slowly assuming control from his 88-year-old father, he’ll be much more inclined to make a change. Yes, the Lions are in first and hold the tiebreaker over the Bears, but please, merely contending isn’t nearly enough. If they can’t win the NFC North this season, can they ever win it with this staff?

Dropping the ball

Former Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson said the Lions have the talent to win it all, if only they could get out of their own way. It’s such a common perception, the Lions don’t even deny it.

“We do have everything right in front of us, sitting in our hands,” receiver Nate Burleson said Wednesday. “The only team that can stop us is us. I’m very confident of that. We are that talented. But we just have too many mistakes right now.”

They blew last week’s game because they fumbled seven times (lost three) and the Eagles fumbled once. Outside of the 40-10 blasting of the Packers, the Lions have been on the brink for the past month. They lost by 10 on the road to the Steelers, lost at home to the Buccaneers and lost by 14 on the road to the Eagles. In the fourth quarters of those losses, Stafford was 6-for-31. His season completion percentage of 58.3 is near the bottom of the league — his receivers have dropped a lot of passes — and he has 14 interceptions.

Sometimes, Stafford trusts his strong arm too much and tries to make throws that aren’t there, part of the not-scared mentality. But there’s no soft-peddling of mistakes now. People need to stop saying Stafford is the best quarterback the Lions have had in 50-plus years (which is true), and wonder when he’ll become one of the consistently best in the NFL today (which he isn’t).

There have been moments — such as the 2011 playoff run — when you think this is going to work. Schwartz brings an edge and his team plays that way, and it can be entertaining and effective. The problem with trying to be the bully is, when someone pushes back, the bully often backs down. The Lions have been awful in fourth quarters lately, and that’s troubling.

They started something here and they have the talent to push it much farther. But if Schwartz wants a chance to finish the job, his team has to prove it can finish games and finish seasons.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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