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Niyo: Lions challenged to 'find a way'

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell yells on the sidelines late in the blowout loss to the Patriots.

Allen Park — You might find this excruciating. Jim Caldwell finds it exciting.

But there's one thing everyone can agree on at the moment, with the Lions coming off consecutive losses for the first time this season and seemingly at a loss to explain why, other than to shrug and idly point to the schedule.

This team has to "find a way to get better — and get better in a hurry," the Lions coach said Monday, because "it's that time of year."

And this time, it better be different for the Lions, whose late-season collapses the past two years left Caldwell's predecessor in Detroit both red-faced and pink-slipped.

"But that's the great part about coaching, because we get to see the team during the good times and also during tough stretches and how we respond in those situations," Caldwell insisted. "That's when you find out the kind of grit you have, the kind of toughness you have, the kind of leadership you have. It's when things aren't quite as nice as you'd like to have them. You see if they can battle through. That's the exciting thing."

And that's the thing the Lions must do now, as they suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in at the NFC playoff picture heading into the stretch run.

'Not worried at all'

Detroit's position isn't a huge surprise, given the mid-November road swing it just endured. (Arizona and New England are a combined 12-0 at home.) But the next four games are against teams with losing records, including a pair against the defensively-challenged Bears. The next three, beginning with Thursday's annual Thanksgiving Day game, are at Ford Field.

Yet, fans here don't need any reminders how little that meant last December when Matthew Stafford & Co. tossed away a division title — and a rare playoff berth — with consecutive home losses to the Ravens and Giants.

Last weekend's effort in a 34-9 loss to the Patriots hardly was encouraging, either.

There aren't many teams that'll go into Foxborough and come away feeling good about themselves. Spending the afternoon staring at Tom Brady isn't great for one's self-esteem. But the Lions got clowned, and then made matters worse by playing the part as they left the field.

C.J. Mosley's personal-foul penalty — teeing off on long snapper Danny Aiken on late field-goal attempt — might've precipitated the wound-salting final touchdown for the Patriots. But then Dominic Raiola, the longest-tenured Lions vet, spent the final possession acting a fool, taking unnecessary swipes at nose tackle Zach Moore and then diving at the rookie's knees on the final kneel-down.

Caldwell wouldn't get dragged into a discussion about the motivations at play there. (Raiola openly admitted after the game he was upset by the late score.) And while Caldwell said he hadn't talked to Mosley yet, he did speak to Raiola.

"We addressed the issue," Caldwell said. "What we talked about is a private matter. But he knows how we like to do things around here and that's the end of the story."

Asked if he was worried his persistent message about discipline and accountability was falling on deaf ears — Detroit also committed a dozen penalties in the loss at Arizona — Caldwell said no.

"I'm not worried at all, in that regard," he said.

'We don't need help'

What's more worrisome now, really, is the continued struggles of the offense, which has yet to find a rhythm — that's being polite, I know — and has failed to find the end zone the last two weeks.

Stafford's completion rate has fallen below 60 percent again, and that can't simply be blamed on a rash of dropped passes. The running game ranks 30th in the league, with or without Reggie Bush. The offensive line looks to be in tatters, as left tackle Riley Reiff (knee) went down. Calvin Johnson is starting to look like a mere mortal, with two 100-yard games all season. And the tight ends, most notably first-round pick Eric Ebron, remain a puzzling non-factor in Joe Lombardi's complicated mess of an offense.

Now, this Lions defense still might be good enough to get them three or four wins down the stretch, especially considering the opposition. (That Bears-Buccaneers game last weekend was about as ugly as they come.) But it's probably going to take at least that to clinch a wild-card berth, so there's little wiggle room here. And a lot at stake.

Sure, the Lions still control their own destiny, as Caldwell noted Monday.

"We don't need anybody's help right now," he said.

But given their recent track record, it's hard to say their postseason fate is in good hands.

Bears at Lions

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: CBS/97.1

Records: Bears 5-6, Lions 7-4

Series: Chicago leads 96-67-5 (Detroit 21-19, Nov. 10, 2013)

Line: Lions by 6

Did you know? The Lions are 34-38-1, 7-8-1 against the Bears on Thanksgiving.