Wojo: Flawed Lions bring their season down to the wire
Chicago — There was no confetti, no celebration, no giddiness. The Lions are a playoff team for the second time in 15 years, and that's truly notable. So is this: If they want more, they'll have to show more, and do it quickly.
It's a testament to their resilience that they can play poorly for three quarters, commit all sorts of gaffes against a downtrodden foe, and then walk off the field with an 11-4 record and a chance to win the division at Green Bay. This is what the Lions do — confound you and pound you, just before they find a way to beat you.
It's safe to say, if they play like they did in their 20-14 victory over the Bears Sunday, their playoff visit will entail little more than a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions and blamed himself for both. There was a blocked field goal, a muffed punt, a batch of ugly penalties and a nasty-looking stomp by center Dominic Raiola. The Bears started a quarterback who'd basically been in mothballs for four years, Jimmy Clausen, and the Lions touted defense didn't really knock him around.
Everyone knows it'll take more to beat the Packers, and the question is, do the Lions have more? At times you say yes, no question, like when the defense rises again and again. And other times the offense struggles and Stafford makes questionable decisions and you say, uh, this isn't a typical smooth-firing playoff team.
If there was a letdown Sunday, it was mildly understandable. The Lions learned they'd made the playoffs the night before, when the Eagles lost to the Redskins, which took some of the edge off the Bears game. But there's one huge way to make it easier on themselves. If the Lions beat the 11-4 Packers on Sunday, they capture the NFC North and clinch home-field advantage and a first-round bye. If they lose, they'll probably play at Dallas in the first round.
All the historic demons are lined up, waiting to be knocked down. The Lions haven't beaten the Packers on the road since 1991 and haven't won any division title since 1993. But they've adopted the demeanor of their level-headed coach, Jim Caldwell, whose message didn't change after this one.
"He said, 'Hey, we're in the playoffs, and now we need to play better football,' " offensive guard Rob Sims said. "Nothing huge. No jumping for joy. OK, cool, next step. And I think (Green Bay) is shaping up to be one of those games they'll talk about for years to come."
In the swing
Aaron Rodgers is slightly more adept at carving opponents than Clausen, and the Packers roll in a different way than the Lions — with offense instead of defense. Nobody really crafts a new identity this time of year, so it'll be another showcase for the Lions defense, which held Rodgers to 162 yards passing in Detroit's 19-7 stuffing in September.
The Lions have the defensive talent to hit Rodgers, but they have to bring it. They collected only two sacks against the Bears, both by Ndamukong Suh, who was his menacing self.
"Our first half, that was just not us," Suh said. "We've had starts like that, unfortunately, before and found a way to get it done. We definitely understand we need to play a lot better, start faster. We need to come out like (Mike) Tyson and just start swinging."
You only get one big swing in the playoffs, so that little habit of starting slow isn't recommended. A lot falls on Stafford, who threw two red-zone interceptions. Instead of a 21-7 halftime lead, it was 7-7, and the Bears were growing more determined to humble their rivals.
Stafford still gets too aggressive and forces throws, which was the case on both miscues. But he'd been cutting down on mistakes, and so had the rest of the offense. If they stay healthy, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate form a combo as dangerous as any.
On the run
The Lions have gotten pretty darn efficient in crunch time, 6-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Of course they'd rather open the playoffs at home, where they're 7-1, raising the stakes for the Green Bay game. Theoretically, their top-rated defense travels in the cold, and so could their running game. It's been much maligned but nearly hit 140 yards against the Bears (74 by Joique Bell, 54 by Reggie Bush) and has become a decent finishing weapon.
This isn't an unexpected playoff run by the Lions but it is a new experience. Composure and discipline will be paramount, which is what Caldwell preaches. We see it sometimes but not all the time, like when Raiola stepped hard on the right ankle of prone Chicago player Ego Ferguson. The incident in the third quarter sparked some verbal spats, and there's certainly a chance the league will review it and consider punishment.
Whether Raiola caved to frustration or simply stumbled, there's no time now for bouts of frustration or ugly stumbles.
"It was totally unintentional," Raoila said. "Come on, I'm not out here trying to step on people. There was no penalty, the ref was right there and he saw me stumbling out of control during the play. I talked to (Ferguson) at the end the game, and I apologized."
Ferguson's response: "Ya'll saw the play, I don't have to explain that."
The Lions don't make many apologies for who they are and how they play, and they shouldn't, as long as they stay within the lines. No matter how you get here, 11-4 is a tremendous accomplishment, the Lions' best regular season since 1991. They more you win, the more you crave, and although they sometimes express it in strange ways, the Lions' crave is real.