Niyo: Last-minute kick in the teeth fitting end to dreadful Lions season

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — This was their season, all tied up neatly with a bow.

And how else could it end, really, because the Lions were the gift that kept on giving in 2019, particularly to those they knew best.

Sunday, it was another blown lead against their would-be rivals from Green Bay, as Detroit spent most of an afternoon threatening to play spoiler before finally relenting and handing the Packers exactly what they wanted: A win and a first-round bye in the playoffs, with a chance to earn home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

The final score was 23-20 in favor of the visitors at Ford Field, though it was hard to tell for sure with so many Packers fans in the stands cheering as Mason Crosby’s last-second kick sailed through the uprights.

It just wasn’t hard to believe, any of it.

Lions' Logan Thomas can't pull in a reception with Packers' Chandon Sullivan defending in the fourth quarter.

“I mean, I felt like the game was, in some ways, a microcosm of our season,” said Graham Glasgow, one of several starters on this roster — some free agents, others not — who might’ve played their final game in a Lions uniform Sunday. “We started out really well … but when it came to the second half and finishing the game, we didn’t pull it out.”

They almost never did this season. Matt Patricia’s team led in 14 of 16 games, but the Lions coughed up fourth-quarter leads in seven of their 12 losses, and another in that season-opening tie at Arizona. Combine that with last year’s football philanthropy and the Lions have lost 18 games in which they’ve led in Patricia’s brief head coaching tenure, most in the NFL. His overall record is now 9-22-1.

So when you realize that the NFC North champs won both games against Detroit this season without leading for a single second in either of them, well, that’s just another log on the fire at this point. That’s only the second time that’s happened in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau, yet there probably wasn’t a single fan at Ford Field that was surprised by the way this one ended.

Not with Green Bay capitalizing on a brutal interception from Lions quarterback David Blough midway through the fourth quarter to tie the game. And certainly not with Aaron Rodgers beginning a final drive at his own 17-yard line with 1:20 on the clock and marching the Packers downfield for the winning score.

Rodgers had a rough day, all in all, but he drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on Tavon Wilson on the first play of the final drive. Then he scrambled and completed another pass near midfield to put the Lions’ defense on its heels. Then he called a screen pass — something the Packers had avoided all day — and eluded pressure just long enough to hit Aaron Jones, who turned it into a 33-yard gain that all but sealed the win. The snap was high on Crosby’s 33-yard field-goal attempt, but the kick was true.

Not again

And so was the reaction, as Lions players fell to the turf in one final display of dismay.

“We just ended up coming up short,” safety Tracy Walker said. "Again."

Again and again, though by the end, there were plenty of ready-made excuses for the Lions. More than enough, apparently, for ownership to justify another year of Patricia as head coach and Bob Quinn as general manager.

For the home finale, it was a skeleton crew on offense, with an undrafted rookie playing quarterback, a practice-squad linebacker playing fullback, a backup cornerback playing wide receiver, and so on. A far cry from the group that lost in strikingly similar fashion on a Monday night at Lambeau Field back in late October. 

The Lions put 16 players on injured reserve this season, including 11 that started at some point. And they lost a few more Sunday, as Kenny Golladay left with a concussion and Devon Kennard and Isaac Nauta were sidelined by hamstring injuries.

Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, too, was hobbling badly on an injured ankle in the second half, and admitted after the game, “I probably should’ve stayed down,” because his limitations — the Packers appeared to be targeting him in the fourth quarter — might’ve been hurting the team.

“But I’m a competitor,” Slay said. “This is the last one of the year. I’ve got all offseason to recover — that’s how I was looking at it.”

That’s how they all will look at it now that it’s over. But even before Monday’s locker clean-out and season-ending media availability, the emotional toll was evident.

Glasgow, a pending free agent, talked about the eerie silence from the Lions’ front office putting his future in Detroit in serious doubt. Slay did as well. And Damon Harrison, the veteran defensive tackle who reworked his contract last summer, broke down in tears as he talked about contemplating retirement. The 31-year-old former All-Pro battled injuries all season and his play suffered as a result.

“I have too much pride, man,” Harrison said in an emotional interview in front of his locker. “I’ve been doing this too long. So if I can’t be the player that I am used to being, I think my teammates deserve better, my family deserves better. I never cheated the game a day in my life.”

Showing grit

The Lions’ players certainly didn’t cheat anybody with their effort down the stretch. And on a day that began with a moment of silence at Ford Field for Marvin Jones’ 6-month-old son who died Friday — Jones and his family were on the field for that tribute Sunday — that was especially true.

“The guys were definitely playing inspired,” Blough said. “We’ve been thinking about Marvin and his family a ton.”

Patricia talked again after Sunday’s loss about the “toughness” his team showed, and the “foundation” that represents, at least in his mind.

And for what it’s worth, it was evident in the way some of his younger players — building blocks, the Lions hope — fought to the bitter end. Players like Walker in the secondary, and Frank Ragnow on the offensive line, and even Kerryon Johnson, who came off injured reserve a week ago and broke off a couple big runs Sunday as the Lions rushed for 171 yards — their third-highest total this season.

 “I’m proud of Kerryon for coming back,” Patricia said. “I think it show his competitive nature. I think it shows the type of guy he is, the type of football player he wants to be.”

But therein lies the problem with all this: The NFL isn’t a game of show-and-tell. It’s strictly a win-or-lose proposition in the end, and the Lions didn’t win a game after October. They also didn’t win a game in their division for the first time since 2012. The nine-game losing streak to end the season it the franchise’s longest since that infamous 0-16 season in 2008.

So even if Sunday’s loss helps them in the long run, preserving their No. 3 overall slot in the draft order, it still hurt just the same as all the others. And it only highlights how difficult the challenge is that lies ahead.

“We obviously have a lot of work to do here,” Patricia said. "We understand that

They better, because as Walker noted with a sigh, "We can’t have another season like this."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo