December 17, 2013 at 7:10 am

John Niyo

Don't blame luck, Lions sealed their fate with their own mistakes

Detroit — Keep looking over your shoulder long enough and eventually you’ll find yourself playing catch-up.

And that’s where the Lions find themselves now, having finally and fitfully — and perhaps fatally — coughed up the division lead they’d held oh-so-carelessly for the last month.

You can throw up your hands if you want about the officiating — a phantom flag here, a blown call there — but that’s life in the NFL, particularly this season.

And you can curse your luck when see a 61-yard field goal run a fade route just inside the goalpost and over the crossbar in the final minute, as Justin Tucker’s winner did with 38 seconds left Monday night, giving Baltimore an 18-16 victory and leaving the Ford Field crowd of 64,742 with a massive stomach ache.

But you can’t argue with the rest of it. Or with the postgame analysis from ESPN’s Trent Dilfer, who noted, “It was all there for them, and they threw up on themselves."

Yep, pass the Pepto-Bismol. And brace yourselves for another coaching search in Detroit. Because if Monday night wasn’t the final verdict on this 2013 season in Detroit, the deliberations can’t be long now. And barring a heck of a fourth-quarter comeback here, Jim Schwartz’s tenure as the Lions’ head coach won’t be much longer, either.

Errant throws, dropped passes, ill-timed penalties. The Lions make so many mistakes of their own — Matthew Stafford’s third interception of the night finally sealed their fate and capped one of his worst games — they can’t take advantage of the mistakes their opponents make against them.

Owning up

Mistake-prone. The Lions’ playoff hopes might not be dead yet — remember, this is the NFC North we’re talking about — but that’ll be the epitaph for this season and Schwartz’s five-year run.

Not that he’s biting publicly on any of that playoffs-or-bust discussion right now. Asked about his job security after Monday’s stunning loss, Schwartz called a misdirection play.

“The only assurance we need is we’ve got two games to play and we’re one down in our division,” said Schwartz, whose next defeat will be his 50th in five seasons in Detroit. “That’s the only thing we need to worry about. That’s the only thing that we need to concern ourselves with right now.”

But right now, the biggest concerns are the same as they’ve been throughout Schwartz’s time in Detroit. Only now they’re even more glaring because of the talent on this roster and the opportunity it has squandered, losing four of five after a 6-3 start and turning what was effectively a two-game division lead into a one-game deficit.

“Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for us,” said Reggie Bush, whose early touchdown run proved to be one of the Lions’ few offensive highlights Monday. “We had it right there in front of us. We had it all right there in front of us, laid out. And we didn’t go take it. We didn’t go get it. That’s our fault.”

There was plenty of blame to go around after this one.

Sure, the Lions were beaten by a leg Monday night — six field goals, to be exact. A whopping 248 yards worth of field goals from Tucker, if you want to really break it down.

But as usual, they were left kicking themselves afterward.

The Lions took the opening kickoff and marched down the field in impressive fashion. Eight plays, 83 yards, and a 7-0 lead that had the revved-up crowd ready for a rowdy night. But by halftime, the fans were understandably booing as the home team trotted off trailing 9-7 after a head-shaking display.

Six penalties for 74 yards in the first half had something to do with it, from a helmet-to-helmet hit by Louis Delmas to a facemask by Jonte Green to an admittedly questionable pass interference call on Don Carey.

So did two surprising drops — both of them drive-killers — by Calvin Johnson. And some wild throws from Stafford, like that sidearm slider to Joique Bell on a would-be screen pass. And a strange disappearing act by Reggie Bush, who started fast and then apparently got lost somewhere on the sideline.

Asked why he only got one carry — one touch, in fact — in the second quarter, Bush simply shrugged after the game. He said it wasn’t due to the calf injury that kept him out of last week’s loss in Philadelphia, and Schwartz confirmed as much.

61 and done

But what no one could honestly answer after the loss was why the Lions keep torturing themselves with turnovers and undisciplined play.

The Lions’ defense actually did a fair job Monday, limiting Baltimore to 305 yards and 4-for-14 on third-down conversions. But while the Lions didn’t allow a touchdown, they also didn’t force any turnovers. And that vaunted front four managed just one sack — actually safety Glover Quin got credit for it — after last week’s goose egg against the Eagles.

The offense fared far worse, following up that opening drive with five first downs and four punts the rest of the first half. And then more interceptions (three) than scores (two) in the second half. Stafford admitted he “didn’t play my best game, by any means.” And while Schwartz finally dared to criticize his quarterback, however briefly — “Some of it’s decision-making,” the coach said — that has been another recurring theme here.

Lots of mistakes, but nobody to fix them.

Look, some of the calls Monday night were inexcusable. And the non-call on Baltimore’s Lardarius Webb in the end zone when he had a vise grip on Kris Durham’s arm on a third-down pass play was brutal. (Former NFL officiating czar Mike Pereira politely called it a “bad miss” Monday night.) But the good teams find a way to overcome that. Playoff teams certainly do. And if the Lions aren’t good enough by now — we’ll find out soon enough — somebody’s going to have to answer for that.

The Lions now find themselves looking up at the taillights of two teams they’d put in their rear-view mirror a little more than a month ago. Despite getting swept by Detroit, Chicago controls its own destiny in the division race. And if the Bears falter, the Packers, who went 0-4-1 in the month of November, are next in line at the moment.

“You wait around long enough,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said, and he didn’t even have to finish his sentence.

The Ravens had just done it for him, really. It wasn’t much of a 2-minute drive for Baltimore. A big kick return by Jacoby Jones, and then a long pass play from Joe Flacco to Jones got the ball across midfield.

Then Ravens coach John Harbaugh had everyone thinking he’d gone cuckoo with a third-down run to set up a 61-yard attempt by Tucker. Turns out he knew what he was doing, though. And honestly, most diehard fans in Detroit probably knew it, too.

The kick was up, and it kept going and going. And as the Lions players turned and looked — over their collective shoulder, of course — it fell like a dagger.

“I thought it wasn’t going in,” defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. “I thought it wasn’t good the whole time.”

When it was good, though, the feeling was hard to describe.

“Just blank,” Mosley said. “It was kind of a blank feeling.”

Surreal, maybe?

No, Bush said, “It’s not surreal. It’s reality.”

And no matter what they say, from the head coach on down, that’s a feeling that’s going to be hard to shake now that they’ve left their fate in someone else’s hands.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Matthew Stafford, offensive coordinator Nate Burleson watch time run out on the Lions defeat. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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