Green Bay — It was all set up, right there for the taking. And then, as if by unbreakable habit, the Lions apparently recognized where they were, and remembered what happens here.
Bad, bad things happen here. The Packers took it away again and the Lions gave it away again, and now head to the playoffs with a fresh sting of disappointment, and obstacles piled higher. Even with its star quarterback hobbled, Green Bay toyed with its rival, as Aaron Rodgers limped off and limped back in, and still led the Packers to a 30-20 victory Sunday.
The Lions can blame it all sorts of things, from football fate to Rodgers' remarkable resilience, but they'd better add this: Their own sloppiness, from penalties to punt returns to untimely gaffes. The Lions are going to the playoffs with an 11-5 record and that's certainly worth extolling, but they're going as a team that hasn't proven it can play with the best.
The Lions will visit the Cowboys next Sunday, and they should cherish the chance to reveal themselves as more than interlopers. First, they'll have to sift through the same old mistakes, the ones that make it hard to foresee a deep playoff run. They hadn't won in Green Bay since 1991 and hadn't won a division title since 1993, and did little to dispel those hauntings.
"We're 11-5, it's a new season, and none of that stuff matters," Jim Caldwell said. "I told our guys, after they get out of that shower, we gotta look forward, not look behind. We don't have to address any issues, it's over with, it's done. It's a new day."
That's the correct attitude, but this sure looked like an old day, with the Lions playing poorly in all phases, starting with the 55-yard punt return surrendered to Micah Hyde for the first touchdown. For 23 years now, the Lions have trudged into Lambeau Field and experienced their share of Lambeau Leaps and Lambeau Lumps.
More than ever, this was their opportunity to grab the key prizes — a division title, a first-round bye, a home playoff game. And they had the Packers reeling for a while, especially when their star exited.
But the Lions couldn't finish the deal, and most notably, couldn't finish off Rodgers. He was carted to the locker room after reinjuring his left leg as he threw a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb late in the first half. While he was gone, the Lions wiped out a 14-0 deficit and tied it on a pair of touchdown passes from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson.
But, alas, this game wasn't about Stafford shooing ghosts, as he struggled again with his accuracy, completing 20 of 41 passes. It wasn't about the Lions' touted defense, which struggled as well. This was about Rodgers, perhaps the NFL MVP, who refused to be beaten up or beaten at all, and the Lions inexplicably made it easier. They didn't sack Rodgers once, and while it's rarely prudent to blitz him, they did very little to pressure him.
The Lions' strength is their defensive line, and it was neutralized by the Packers' offensive line. If that happens against the Cowboys, the Lions will be finished.
"I wasn't sacked, and frankly not touched much the entire game," Rodgers said. "That's a quarterback's dream right there."
Rodgers is the ultimate dream-crusher, and he earned some much-needed rest. The Lions earned another week of whispers that they may be good, but not good enough. They finished the regular season 0-4 on the road against teams that made the playoffs, and few are as hot as the Cowboys and quarterback Tony Romo.
"We gotta tighten some things up, but we're not gonna let this one game destroy a whole 11-5 season," offensive guard Rob Sims said. "We've got the firepower, we've got the desire, it's just the mistakes here, the mistakes there. Of course it stings, but we got another game to play, we still got our shot, and we're gonna go take it."
They'd better fire more accurately, more efficiently and more intelligently. The Lions committed 10 penalties, including being flagged twice in the first half for 12 men on the field. For all their woes at Lambeau, you couldn't blame them for trying to ditch the old 11-man routine.
Trailing 21-14 in the fourth quarter, Stafford and Joique Bell mishandled a snap and the Packers recovered the fumble, then drove for the clinching touchdown.
There also were less-noticeable blunders.
After the Lions tied it 14-14, Sam Martin booted the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving the Packers the ball at their own 40. Rodgers returned then, for Green Bay's second possession of the second half, and effortlessly drove for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Lions' impenetrable defense? It was gashed by Eddie Lacy for 100 yards, the first opposing back to hit the mark all season. Rodgers didn't flash his normal mobility but completed 17 of 22 passes for 226 yards, and for the 14th consecutive home game, didn't throw an interception.
Late in the game, Rodgers got riled up when Ndamukong Suh stepped twice (but didn't stomp) on the quarterback's injured left leg as he lay on the ground. It probably wouldn't stir rabid debate except for Suh's history of nasty play, and for the Lions' similar reputation. Center Dominic Raiola already was serving a one-game suspension for stomping on a Chicago player last week.
These are the types of mental lapses that can't happen, and the Lions have overcome them to piece together a fine season. It gets much tougher now, and they have to know it. Stafford can't miss receivers and the line can't miss blocks and the offense can't be this ineffective against good teams.
The Cowboys are like the Packers, high-scoring and dynamic, with an accurate, coolly confident quarterback in Romo. The pervasive theme in the Lions dressing room afterward: Don't panic. They gave pull props to Rodgers and the Packers, and Green Bay has dominated the division for a reason. The Lions will head to Dallas as major underdogs again, and they'll hear more talk about their history, without a playoff victory since 1991.
"You never take getting into the playoffs for granted," Caldwell said. "Without question, we better be excited about it going in, and our guys are. They gotta have a quantum shift in terms of their focus, and they can't let questions drag them down about what happened in this particular game."
Everything shifts now, from gears to focus to stakes. The Lions didn't exorcise old demons on this day, and they got a painful reminder how difficult it will be.
Lions at Cowboys
What: Wild card round of playoffs.
When: 4:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox
Line: Cowboys favored by six points.
Next: If the Lions win, they would play Seattle in the divisional round.