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The Detroit Lions had the Tennessee Titans down 12 points in the fourth quarter, but blew the lead and the game in a penalty-filled performance.

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Detroit — One step forward, 10 yards back. Two steps forward, 15 yards back. This is what the Lions do, and this is why you can’t take them seriously, not until they take themselves more seriously.

There’s always another way with this team, another layer of confounding mistakes and dumbfounding play. The temptation is to say they’ve never quite lost like this, but it’s probably not true. They had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of their home opener, and it was wiped out by a double-digit avalanche of penalties and assorted gaffes.

The Lions lost to the Titans 16-15 on Sunday, and did it in the most absurd way. They committed 17 penalties, dropped numerous passes, and then, with the game in the balance, surrendered an 83-yard touchdown drive to a second-year quarterback on an offense-challenged team. By then, the Lions’ defense was decimated by injury, and Marcus Mariota picked them apart.

The Lions didn’t even try to blame the officials — after all, the Titans were whistled 12 times too. It’s unclear who needed a larger shoulder wrap after the game, the over-zealous refs or the under-siege Matthew Stafford. It was ugly and inexcusable, and the Lions earned their share of the wrath. It won’t be easily shaken off either, as the injuries piled up, from Ziggy Ansah to Ameer Abdullah to most of the linebackers.

It was a perfect kettle of slop, and yet somehow the Lions still had a chance to win. But Stafford, so good a week ago, couldn’t do anything on the final drive, which ended with his first interception of the season.

“I don’t know how many penalties we had, 15, 17, something like that,” Stafford said. “Tough to win a game that way, tough to get into a rhythm. You know, we did it to ourselves out there, mistakes, drops, penalties, you name it, we did it.”

Back that offense up

It got comical, although not in the haha-funny sense. Leading 9-3 late in the first half, the Lions had a first down at the Titans’ 1. They scored on a Stafford pass to Eric Ebron, but it was wiped out by pass interference on Ebron. Back up 10 yards. They immediately scored on an 11-yard pass to Anquan Boldin, wiped out by a hold on Laken Tomlinson. Back up 10 more. They gained 7 yards on a pass to Golden Tate, wiped out by a hold on Boldin.

First-and-goal from the 1 became third-and-goal from the 26, and while the crowd booed — at the refs, at the Lions, at their fate in life? — a Matt Prater field goal eventually supplied a 12-3 lead. But the errors truly were just starting, and by the end, 11 players had committed penalties and three touchdowns had been called back.

Tomlinson was particularly rough with two holds, and Tate had a batch of mistakes. He committed a personal foul, blind-siding a Tennessee defender, and dropped several passes.

“As receivers, we believe any ball in our area code, we need to catch it,” Tate said. “Speaking for myself, there’s some balls I just should’ve flat-out caught.”

Players were mystified, and so was Jim Caldwell. But he should be angry, because penalties and careless play reflect on a coach, and this reflects on him. After their 39-35 comeback against the Colts, the Lions had a chance to go 2-0 and stir a little positive debate. Instead, we’re forced to spin old yarns of a franchise that simply can’t get out of its own way.

“All I know is, there were way too many (penalties),” Caldwell said. “A composure issue is when you get personal fouls and guys are out of control and there are fights and things of that nature. These were technical issues, I think, with a lot of different guys.”

The wrong steps

Were there any specific penalties he strongly disputed?

“No, I don’t ever complain about it,” Caldwell said. “We need to stop with the infractions, plain and simple. That’s my job. I’ll get those guys straightened out in that area.”

He’d better do it, and the players had better adjust, if the Lions want to be taken seriously. They have some solid pieces, and if Stafford had been able to finish another comeback, he’d be rightly celebrated again for his fierce competitiveness. He ran the ball, knocked down defenders and even tried to throw blocks. But he didn’t get much help, and finished 22-for-40.

Ebron is becoming a big-play tight end, but he also committed two penalties. The running tandem of Theo Riddick and Abdullah looks more and more dangerous, although Abdullah left with a foot injury.

To be fair, the Lions lost a lot of pieces, and naturally, Caldwell gave no indication of the severity of any injuries. Ziggy Ansah left on the first drive with an ankle injury and never returned. DeAndre Levy (quad) didn’t play and his replacement, rookie Antwione Williams, departed with a thigh injury. Another linebacker, Kyle Van Noy, left in the third quarter with a calf injury, so at the end, it was up to the lone man standing (Tahir Whitehead) and bench guys Brandon Copeland and Thurston Armbrister.

Mariota was nine-for-nine on the winning drive, capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson on fourth-and-4 with 1:13 left. It’s that narrow, the difference between grittily overcoming miscues and sloppily blowing a game. For the Lions, it’s the difference between taking a step, and stepping right into another nasty mess.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski

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