Niyo: Lions fumble away giant opportunity
East Rutherford, N.J. — It’s going to end at home, one way or another.
You know it. They feel it, even though they won’t admit it. And whether it’s fate or folly or simply football, this Lions season probably won’t be decided until next year.
Delayed gratification? Maybe. Inevitable heartache? That’s certainly possible, too.
But Sunday’s 17-6 loss to the Giants did more than just fog the windows on the plane ride home to Detroit. Coupled with another win by red-hot Green Bay in freezing-cold Chicago — a last-second field goal gave the Packers their fourth win in a row, tightening the playoff picture like a vise — it means the Lions (9-5) are officially in jeopardy of fumbling it all away.
Just as they did here at MetLife Stadium, with an elusive prize on the line — a division title and a home playoff date there for the taking — and a fellow playoff contender on the field. Yet instead of seizing an opportunity Sunday, the Lions seized up.
And as they sized up the damage afterward, from Darius Slay’s hamstring injury to another anemic showing by their run game, it was backup running back Zach Zenner who probably summed it up best.
Jarred and pickled
It was Zenner who’d coughed up the football early in the second quarter, on his first carry of the game, one play after Matthew Stafford — playing gamely with an injured throwing hand — connected on a 67-yard pass play to Golden Tate. Zenner took the handoff, rumbled through the line for a 7-yard gain and then fumbled, the football eventually getting kicked into the end zone, where the Giants recovered and the Lions, quite frankly, never really did.
“I thought I had a good grip on it,” said Zenner, who had the ball jarred free by cornerback Leon Hall’s helmet, “and then the worst feeling in the world happened next when the ball was loose.”
He’s not alone in that feeling today, I’m sure. The playoffs aren’t out of the Lions’ hands yet, no. But if the storyline coming in was about Stafford trying to get a grip, the one coming out now focuses on his team trying to do the same.
Stafford, for his part, dismissed that idea Sunday, just as he shrugged off any concerns about his dislocated middle finger, which didn’t seem to affect his throwing ability on a damp, dreary afternoon here in New Jersey.
Asked if he felt like the playoffs were still in the Lions’ hands, Stafford seemed almost indignant after the game.
“I know they are, yeah,” Stafford said. “I mean, we control our own destiny.”
Yeah, but so do the Packers now, after this weekend’s emotional two-game swing. And even with an upset win next week in Dallas, the Lions likely would have to win their regular-season finale Jan. 2 at home against Green Bay. On Saturday, the Packers will host the Vikings, who were all but eliminated from playoff contention with an embarrassing 34-6 loss at home to Indianapolis.
At least these next two games will be indoors, which sure beats the alternative for the Lions.
For years, they’ve talked about proving they were more than a dome team. But they’ve done little to dispel that notion this season, losing all three of their games in the elements. Sunday, they failed to score an offensive touchdown for the first time since the Oct. 2 loss at Soldier Field — the last time they played without a roof over their heads.
“I don’t think there’s anything to it,” said Stafford, whose team is now 5-10 outdoors the last three seasons under Caldwell. “We’ve played some good defenses, too. We had our chances. Just didn’t get it in there.”
To be fair, they didn’t get the foul weather we were expecting Sunday, either. The heavy rain and gusty winds never quite materialized. But the Lions still couldn’t take advantage
And that’s partly because they couldn’t run the ball, though not for a lack of trying. The Lions managed just 56 yards on 19 carries and finished the day getting outgained on the ground by a 2-to-1 margin. By a Giants team that came in ranked 30th in the league in rushing, no less.
So much for the strides they’d made a week earlier against Chicago. And so much more evidence Sunday that coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and this offense won’t get back on track unless and until Theo Riddick (wrist) gets back in the lineup.
Behind Stafford, Riddick’s the most important player in that playbook. And it’s probably no coincidence the Lions are now 3-for-12 in the red zone the last three weeks, with as many turnovers (three) as touchdowns to go with six Matt Prater field goals.
Sunday, they started with the Zenner fumble and were finished by Stafford’s interception trying to force one to Anquan Boldin in the end zone at the 2-minute warning. It was a desperate throw late in the game, and one Caldwell was quick to defend afterward, sounding oddly like his coaching predecessor in Detroit, Jim Schwartz, the last time the Lions tossed away a division title.
“We like to play smart and not scared, you know?” Caldwell said.
Fair enough, but we all know where this one’s headed, right?
For the Lions, with their playoff lives now hanging in the balance and fans understandably fretting, it’s win, or go home, for better or for worse.