Wojo: Lions have earned place in playoff limbo

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — This is who they are, accept it or not, understand it or not. The Lions are good enough to be close, flawed enough to be too close to call.

Oh, it’s going down to the final game of the season Jan. 1 against the Packers, just as we figured. Go ahead and freak out if you wish, but you’re wasting your angst. At 9-5, the Lions are still in decent shape to make the playoffs (according to statistical probabilities), or doomed to a painful, inglorious demise (according to historical reference).

The Lions get no free-fall pass here. In a down year in the NFC, in an up year for Matthew Stafford, they’ve shown they can make the playoffs and they should, or it’s an utter failure. They even, technically, get one more mulligan, not that they’re advised to take it. Beating the Cowboys in Dallas Monday night would improve the Lions’ wild-card odds, but a loss wouldn’t kill their NFC North chances.

To clinch their first division title in 23 years, the Lions likely will have to beat the Packers at Ford Field next Sunday, and they still can, whether Aaron Rodgers rides in on two healthy calves or not. That didn’t appreciably change with the 17-6 loss to the Giants. If anything, that game confirmed why the Lions sit exactly where they sit.

Not by optimal design, but by necessity, the Lions live in the narrow margins, in every way. They’ve played precisely two games decided by double digits, winning one and losing one. They’re not explosive, but efficient. They rank in the middle of the NFL in most offensive and defensive categories and yet are 8-2 since Oct. 2.

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When Stafford makes big plays late, and the defense makes big plays late, they win close games. Their kicking game, led by Matt Prater, is incredibly clutch. As we’ve seen, it’s a precarious way to play, and it’s the way modestly talented teams are forced to play.

“I don’t deal with margins for error,” Jim Caldwell said Monday. “I deal with reality. The reality of it is, we work and we focus on what we can do. I don’t worry about statistics, I don’t worry about any of that other stuff, OK? I just look at what our task is.”

The task is difficult, but let’s be fair and clear here — the Lions have outperformed their expectations, and seemingly, their talent. It was supposed to be a tricky transition in GM Bob Quinn’s first season, and it’s better than that.

Heroics defy weaknesses

It’s a breakthrough year for Stafford as a complete quarterback. It’s a redemptive year for Caldwell and his coordinators, Teryl Austin and Jim Bob Cooter, who could’ve been fired after last season.

But it’s not a complete turnaround, not if they miss the playoffs. The Lions have obscured their weaknesses with late-game heroics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They just have to find a way to obscure their weaknesses a few more times, then hope Quinn can fix them in the offseason.

The Lions can’t run the ball, and while there are reasons, there are no handy solutions. Two rookies are starting on the offensive line. Ameer Abdullah has been out most of the year. Theo Riddick has been in and out, and his versatility is desperately needed. It’s asking way too much of Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner to be game-changers, although Zenner’s fumble into the end zone against the Giants was a disastrous game-changer.

The Lions generally have been good at avoiding mistakes, which doesn’t show up in the traditional statistical categories. That was only the fourth fumble they’ve lost, although they’ve only recovered four. Their defense ranks 29th in sacks and allows opponents to complete 72.8 percent of their passes, last in the league. To be fair, the Cowboys are next-to-last at 68.4, but their offense is No. 2 in time of possession, keeping their secondary off the field.

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That’s why it’s truly remarkable the Lions have held eight straight opponents to 20 points or fewer. It’s also why the larger issue is the offense, despite all the praise heaped upon Stafford (rightly so) and Cooter (less rightly so).

Limited ways to win

The Lions are 29th in rushing and have a league-low five rushing touchdowns. This is the dilemma Caldwell and Cooter face every week, especially when the Lions play outdoors (0-3 this season). If you can’t run, you can’t give up trying, or you’re back where you were for years, simply hoping to keep Stafford upright long enough to keep throwing.

“You find teams that unleash the passing game against guys that can rush the passer, and you’re going to have problems,” Caldwell said. “Fortunately, I’ve been around teams that have thrown the ball pretty well and I know for a fact you better have some sort of a running game, or at least make an attempt and be patient with it. I think it’s a delicate balancing act, but you can’t abandon it completely. You start throwing the ball over 40 times a game and there are going to be a few bad things that happen to you.”

Stafford averages 36 attempts, partly because the Lions have had to rally late in eight of their nine victories. Against the Cowboys and Packers, that’s less likely to happen, and you can bet the Lions are hoping Riddick’s injured wrist, which has sidelined him the past two games, heals quickly.

The Lions haven’t had a star back since, well, let’s not go there. Look how Ezekiel Elliott has turned the Cowboys into a power in his first season, behind a great offensive line, obviously. The Lions don’t have that luxury. They don’t have many luxuries, really.

What the Lions have is a limited number of ways to win games, and limited opportunities remaining. It’s not that hard to figure out why it’s been so tight, and why the toughest part is still ahead.