Wojo: Lions end playoff charade in fitting fashion
Orchard Park, N.Y. — The kicker who never misses, missed. The snapper who never misfires, misfired. The linebacker who made plenty of good plays suddenly made a bad one.
And the team that can’t get out of its own way, or find its way, put the fitting capper on its misery. The Lions don’t have anything they can count on right now, not even the things they can count on, and mercifully the charade is over. The Lions’ playoff chances officially plummeted from about 4 percent to precisely zero, no shot, stop the math, with a 14-13 loss to Buffalo on Sunday.
In so many ways, it was appropriate, and now without even minuscule playoff odds to consider, the introspection must begin for the Lions and Matt Patricia, who is 5-9 in his first season. It starts with the offense, which has to be revamped. Matthew Stafford, playing with an achy back, stood in against the Bills’ top-rated defense, but once again the Lions were short-handed and short-armed.
It was never going to be easy for Patricia to overhaul the Lions’ culture of mediocrity, but my goodness, we thought we’d see notable differences. Not much, not from a team that was 9-7 its final two seasons under Jim Caldwell. The defense has improved, and that’s where the positive chatter stops, for now.
GM Bob Quinn bears the ultimate responsibility, and he hasn’t done enough, yet. But after another dispiriting loss, Patricia stood in the glare.
“It starts with me,” Patricia said, as he often does. But now comes the hard part, evaluating a team with nothing to play for, and frankly, nothing really to lean on.
In the visiting locker room at New Era Field, player after player shook his head and took the blame. They weren’t all wrong, but they weren’t all right either.
Matt Prater has been clutch for a long time, converting his last 15 field-goal attempts. But with 5:50 left and a chance to give the Lions a 16-14 lead, he pushed a 48-yarder wide right. It was his first fourth-quarter miss in three years, and when the Lions got the ball back one last time, they puttered through three plays and punted.
“No excuse, I let everyone down, including myself,” Prater said. “I expect to make those kicks, and I have in the past. It’s frustrating anytime you don’t come through when you get a big opportunity.”
The reason the Lions trailed by one? Because after a Stafford touchdown pass to Andy Jones made it 6-0 in the second quarter, Don Muhlbach snapped low on the extra-point attempt and Sam Martin couldn’t grasp it.
“I just didn’t do my job,” Muhlbach said. “I let everybody here down.”
Ah, see a theme developing? This was the sixth loss in eight games, and it’s something different every time, while wrapped in a numbing sameness. When a play has to be made, the Lions simply don’t make it, not often enough, not logically enough.
Stafford doesn’t have his normal complement of weapons, through injury and attrition, but neither do the Bills (5-9). Their rookie quarterback, Josh Allen, made the biggest play, a 42-yard touchdown strike to Robert Foster early in the fourth quarter to take a 14-13 lead.
Stafford connected with Kenny Golladay for a couple spectacular catches, and by halftime, the Lions star receiver had 115 yards on four receptions. The Bills’ defense adjusted and the Lions ran low on options, and Golladay added only three catches for 31 yards in the second half.
Coupled with Minnesota’s victory over Miami, the Lions’ tiny playoff hopes officially were gone, and even though elimination was pretty much inevitable, the finality stung.
“We felt good about our last three games, finishing off strong,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “I believe we still had a chance and we were gonna make something happen someway, somehow, and try to make it into the big dance. Unfortunately we came up short.”
A lot of the Lions’ shortcomings are self-evident. Stafford has regressed under Jim Bob Cooter, which is why Patricia will have to look for a new offensive coordinator. The Lions also played the second half of the season without rookie back Kerryon Johnson and receivers Marvin Jones (injured) and Golden Tate (traded). Stafford kept battling and started his 126th consecutive game, but toughness can’t be a quarterback’s primary strength.
By the end, he was throwing touchdown passes to the aforementioned Andy Jones, who was released and re-signed by the Lions in the past six weeks. He was handing the ball to Zach Zenner (also released and re-signed), who ran hard for 45 yards.
No fairy tale
On defense, the Lions have added and developed some good pieces — defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, linebacker Jarrad Davis, cornerback Darius Slay — and yet on upside-down day in Buffalo, key guys couldn’t make the big play.
On the Bills’ winning touchdown drive, Slay was called for pass interference, a 23-yard penalty that put the ball on the Lions’ 37. Later, on the clock-killing final drive, the Bills faced a third-and-7 from the Lions’ 47. Allen threw incomplete but Davis jumped offsides, and Buffalo had another shot.
“It’s a crucial situation and you gotta make plays, you can’t have mental errors like that,” said Davis, who has become a tackling machine. “That mental error killed us.”
That led to fourth-and-inches with 1:52 left, and Allen snuck for the first down, wedging past Harrison, who has been an absolute force in the middle. Harrison took the blame for not plugging the hole, a self-accountability repeated often after the game.
At least we know the Lions can admit to faults and accept blame. To that end, Patricia has kept this group battling, not fracturing, even with ample opportunity to do so. And with jobs on the line for plenty of players, you’ll probably see ample effort the final two games against Minnesota and Green Bay.
But ultimately, that’s not enough, and certainly won’t be enough going forward under Patricia. Plenty has been lost, but if anything has been gained, perhaps it’s an appreciation for how difficult the task is, how elusive the playoffs can be, and how much it will take to become an actual contender.
“I know I’m disappointed; I’ve been in the playoffs just about every year, but it’s not about me,” said veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who joined the Lions this season. “Everything you want to happen doesn’t happen in one year. It’s a fairy tale if it happens in one year.”
It’s been an unfulfilled fairy tale for a long time around here, and one element hasn’t changed. The Lions are still looking for someone or something to count on, a way to get out of their own way.