Denver — It was tight and tense, and for a while, it looked like the Lions were going to mess it up. They fought, as they generally do, but in the end, there was no hiding who they are and what they need.
They’re a battered team that keeps it close but can’t finish off anyone. And what they needed was to show some spirit and make some plays, but not enough to actually win the game and damage their draft position.
Pardon the snark, but the Lions did exactly what they had to do Sunday, falling to the Broncos, 27-17, to stretch their losing streak to eight. It was meaningless in the traditional sense of season record (3-11-1) and division standings. It didn’t even have a bearing on the status of GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia, who both have been invited to return by the Ford family.
But this was meaningful in two enormous ways — for draft positioning and for Kerryon Johnson. The Lions climbed to No. 3 in the draft order and have an outside shot at No. 2, thanks to some fortuitous outcomes. The second-year running back returned after missing eight games with a right knee injury, and that ratcheted the dual risks. He could’ve been rusty and gotten injured in a meaningless game, or he could’ve been terrific and helped deliver a meaningless victory.
Neither occurred, which was just fine with the Lions, even if they were in no mood to admit it.
“Every game means something, that’s why we play,” Patricia said. “If it didn’t mean anything, then we wouldn’t show up. It means something for (Johnson). I think he wanted to play. As a team, it was great to have him out there.”
Johnson ran hard and cut well, and finished with 42 yards on 10 carries. He wore a knee brace with no notable difficulty, and afterward wore a smile of relief.
“It felt awesome, probably the most fun I’ve had in a year,” Johnson said. “Vision-wise, that was as clear as I’ve felt in a while. … (The knee) came out good. Not worse than when I went in, so you can’t be mad about that.”
Race to bottom
Oh, people would’ve been furious — rightly so — if Johnson banged up the knee again and finished on the injured list for the second straight season. It’s not a risk I would’ve taken, and it wasn’t a risk Patricia was insistent on taking. He left the decision up to Johnson, and once doctors cleared him, the answer came back quickly.
“Coach Patricia said, ‘Look, obviously you don’t have to do this,'” Johnson said. “I said, 'No, I want to play.' It just felt like it was the right thing to do, something I wanted to do for myself and for the team.”
In that regard this was about enhancing the future, a chance for Johnson to remind everyone he can be a showcase back, a chance for the Lions to ensure at least a top-five pick. For a while, they did everything wrong to preserve their pick, while doing a few things right to actually, you know, try to win the game. They grabbed a 10-0 lead, thanks to Jamal Agnew’s 64-yard punt return, and went ahead again 17-13 in the third quarter on a 3-yard touchdown pass from David Blough to Kenny Golladay.
And then, naturally, it slipped away, as it has all season. Broncos rookie quarterback Drew Lock picked apart the league’s second-worst defense, and the Lions no longer have enough healthy offensive weapons to compensate. So there was more misery, except this was fruitful misery.
A victory might have provided temporary relief, but it could have done untold damage long term. Sometimes trying hard is enough, and falling short can earn you a better chance to try again. With one game left at home against Green Bay, the Lions hold the No. 3 pick, with no chance of catching 1-14 Cincinnati for No. 1. But they can catch 3-12 Washington for the No. 2 pick, which could deliver them Ohio State pass-rushing demon Chase Young, barring something goofy. As you know, goofy is always possible, but the Bengals almost certainly will take LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
So how do the Lions win the chase for Chase? It still won’t be easy. Actually, it should be easy to lose to the Packers (11-3), who are in first place in the NFC North but will be battling for the No. 1 overall seed. No rest for them.
The problem is, Washington must win at Dallas to drop in the draft order and allow the Lions to move up. The Cowboys (7-8) aren’t formidable but they still have a shot at the playoffs. No rest for them.
It may be confusing, but the Lions can drop no lower than fifth. It’s not clear who the next touted prospect will be after Burrow and Young, but among the intriguing possibilities: Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Just enough to lose
It’ll be on every Lions fan’s mind for months, but that’s not how it works for the players, who are far more concerned about their own development than the arrival of some hotshot rookie. It’s ridiculous to suggest any pro is happy to lose, but some losses aren’t as bad as others.
Asked if he considered the draft implications when he decided to play, Johnson shook his head.
“Literally, not even a little bit,” he said. “I don’t get drafted again, I do not care about the draft, I don’t have to do any drafting. They (coaches) don’t think about that. We focus on winning the next day, winning the next down, winning the next game.”
They haven’t pulled that off in a couple months, and 2-0-1 sure seems a long, long time ago. It fell apart for a lot of reasons, the injury to Matthew Stafford at the top of the list. But that doesn’t explain the demise of the defense, and the numbing repetitive nature of the fourth-quarter collapses.
Once again, same story, same tight game, same outcome, same tedious explanation.
“I thought our guys played hard and I thought they battled,” Patricia said. “We just didn’t make enough plays when we needed to.”
Everyone’s tired of hearing it, I’m sure. This one didn’t mean any more than the others, and certainly didn’t mean any less. For the Lions, it hurt a bit, but the truth is, it could help a bit more.