Wojo: Lions’ playoff ambitions look like an illusion
Detroit — Even the final key play, a blocked field goal wiped out by a penalty, turned out to be a fake flurry, another symbol of who these Lions truly are. They’re good enough to tease, not good enough to beat the best.
In one of the biggest Thanksgiving games in recent history, the Lions delivered another dreadful false start, wrapped by the standard frantic finish. Yet again, they began the game as if in a drowsy daze, and it cost them. It might have cost them just about every major goal they still harbored.
The Lions fell to the Minnesota Vikings 30-23 Thursday and pretty much squandered any chance of winning the NFC North. Minnesota (9-2) now has a three-game lead on the Lions (6-5), and the gap on the field was as wide as the gap in the standings. The Lions aren’t out of the wild-card playoff picture, trailing Seattle, Carolina and Atlanta for one of two spots, but they did nothing to show they’re likely to stay in it.
With everything at stake, the Lions again were awful at the start. In their past three games, they’ve been outscored 33-3 in the first quarter. That’s not insurmountable against the Bears and Browns, but against a tough Vikings team now on a seven-game winning streak, it certainly was.
This falls on Jim Caldwell and his coaching staff, that the Lions couldn’t dig up a single suitable answer to Minnesota’s attack until the score reached 27-10 in the third quarter. But it speaks more loudly to the Lions’ fundamental flaws, the ones alternately revealed and obscured during their three-game winning streak.
If Matthew Stafford and his receivers aren’t scorching, the Lions have virtually no chance because they have no running game. He wasn’t scorching on this day and spent the final quarter gutting it out on a twisted ankle.
Running in place
There were a few seemingly spectacular moments — including Nevin Lawson’s nullified 77-yard touchdown return in the closing minute — but not nearly enough to stick. These are not new trends, either, just graphically exposed by superior competition. The Lions’ pass rush doesn’t generate much pressure and their run defense has been stunningly bad. They did win in Minnesota seven weeks ago, 14-7, but Case Keenum has become a different quarterback behind the Vikings’ powerful offensive line.
And if you want to know why the Lions can’t beat top teams, the reason is buried in those trenches — they’re incapable of running the ball or stopping the run. Ameer Abdullah is not the answer — six carries, 14 yards, one fumbled handoff from Stafford — and I’m guessing GM Bob Quinn regrets not adding a big running back. That’s also why the Lions can’t establish themselves early, falling behind 13-0 Thursday and quickly turning the atmosphere from festive to furious.
“I think our team has done that often, where they’ve still come back and given us a chance to win it,” Caldwell said. “We still had a chance. Yeah, obviously disappointed in the way we started.”
That’s a pat response but not a real answer. Probably because the answer is obvious, and with this team, perhaps unfixable.
As always, the Lions are conceding nothing, with a game at Baltimore looming. In fact, none of their final five opponents is above .500, so don’t be surprised if the tease endures a while longer.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Caldwell said. “If you’re around .500 when you’re sitting down for your Thanksgiving meal, you still got a chance. … I know the media will paint it as the sky is falling — the sky’s not falling for us. We gotta get ourselves a little bit better.”
Notably on defense. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis either has hit the infamous rookie wall, or wasn’t as ready as a first-round pick often is. If the Lions’ fine secondary isn’t picking off passes and scoring touchdowns, the defense gets dissected. Ziggy Ansah returned and collected a sack, but the pass rush scares no one. When it finally did heat up, it slowed Keenum, although he still was thoroughly effective, 21-for-30 for 282 yards.
The Vikings’ first drive of the second half was punishing from their perspective, and disgusting from the Lions’ perspective. Minnesota needed only four runs to drive 75 yards for a 27-10 lead, and the booing boomed.
“We came out terrible the third quarter, four plays, all runs, terrible,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “I’m making sure I’m playing all four quarters, but I ain’t the only person on the team. We all have to feel the same way. I’m an energy guy, so I’m turned up all day, every day. Some guys might be a little different. I don't know."
The Lions move in fits and bursts, hits and misses. Marvin Jones made a superb catch on a 43-yard touchdown strike early in the fourth quarter that sliced the deficit to 27-23, but Stafford injured his right ankle on the play. He played on, as he always does, but he was off, missing a wide-open Golden Tate on a deep middle route in the closing minutes. It was another ohhhh-so-close moment, followed shortly by what appeared to be a miraculous play, but turned out to be just another mirage.
With 1:15 left, Slay blocked Kai Forbath’s 25-yard field goal attempt and sent the ball bouncing to Lawson, who raced 77 yards for the apparent tying touchdown. The crowd of 66,613 — second-largest in Ford Field history — went wild, until it noticed the flag. Slay was way offside and the penalty gave the Vikings a clinching first down.
“I was walking back (after scoring) and the tight end on their team (Blake Bell) said, ‘You see that flag?’ ” Lawson said. “I was like, oh man, that was our chance right there. Now it’s over.”
He meant the game was over, not the season, not the playoff run, but it’s hard not to see the symmetry. Every time the Lions make you think something is possible, it looks impossible against a tougher foe. It’s the story of their season, the pattern they just can’t break.