Four Downs: NFL officiating, Lions' playoff hopes take a hit in loss

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 23-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

First down

Packers receiver Allen Lazard hangs onto the reception with Lions cornerback Darius Slay all over him on Green Bay's final offensive drive in the fourth quarter Monday night at Lambeau Field.

Lions fans would clearly prefer the win, but they're probably feeling pretty validated the day after this loss with the Detroit vs. Everybody narrative taking hold nationally. After years of crying abuse at the hands of the league's officials, a national audience witnessed your plight and are sharing in your anger

Let's be clear: The players and coaches shouldn't be let off the hook for their own shortcomings in the heartbreaking loss to the Packers, but all anyone wants to talk about is the officiating. In the second half alone, there were three controversial flags and one no-call, on what appeared to be a blatant pass interference.

Even if the Lions failed to take care of business on several plays, there's no denying the outcome was impacted by yellow flags on debatable calls. 

Obviously the Lions aren't alone in these frustrations. Complaints about the league's officiating are at a fever pitch, with reactions reaching nearly as bad as they were when the league used replacement refs during a 2012 lockout of the regular officials. 

But what's the solution? There are a number of options being thrown around on Tuesday, including the implementation of an idea from the defunct AAF, where a video official could overrule any call on the field based on visual evidence. Another suggestion, from former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky, is having all flags confirmed by replay review.

But after seeing the way the league has handled its newfound ability to review pass interference — with a disdain for overturning the rulings on the field — it begs the question: Would much change? 

We already know the Lions didn't challenge the seemingly obvious pass interference against Marvin Jones because the NFL has scared teams away from trying, and the team wasn't willing to risk a timeout in the fourth quarter. 

What about the three other calls? Does anyone believe the league overturns the unnecessary roughness call against Tracy Walker? After talking to head official Clete Blakeman after the game, it didn't matter that Walker was going for the ball, the onus is on the defender to avoid hitting the offensive player helmet-to-helmet and there was unquestionably contact. 

How about the two illegal use of the hands infractions against Trey Flowers?

The rule states a defender can't thrust his hands into the head, face or neck area of an opponent. Flowers' hand was largely locked on the inside of his opponent's shoulder pad, but couldn't that loosely be interpreted as the neck area, especially the way Packers offensive lineman David Bakhtiari sold the contact, thrusting his head back.

If the league is reluctant to overturn cases of clear contact in the defensive backfield, what makes you think they would go against the ruling on the field in these instances? 

The best-case scenario is for a more relaxed attitude on penalties in general. The best games are often the ones where officials swallow their whistles. We wrote as much after the stellar job the crew did in the Lions' season-opener against the Cardinals.

Obviously, the league can't afford to sacrifice player safety, but with fewer infractions, with calls such as defensive and offensive holding, it would benefit the game. Keep the flags pocketed outside of egregious infractions. Maybe that doesn't save Walker, given the injury the receiver suffered on the play, but it probably negates the need to call Flowers on a pair of borderline calls on prolonged pass-rush snaps. 

And yeah, sure, add a video official who can overrule what's happening on the field. A completely different part of the problem is perception. We're relying on snap judgments of humans at field level while we sit at home with our HD replays from 20 different angles.

As long as it doesn't markedly slow down the game, take advantage of the available technology to get calls right, as often as possible.  

Second down

It's amazing how much the outcome of Monday's game impacted the early-season playoff picture. Had the Lions held on for the victory, they'd be sitting atop the NFC North division, holding the No. 3 seed in the conference. 

With the loss, the Lions plummet all the way to the division's cellar and are currently No. 9 in the playoff race. 

The NFC is shaping up to be tough this year, and even though the Lions still have 11 games remaining, it's reasonable to take a closer look at how the whole thing could shake out.

Green Bay, with its 3-0 start in the division, has opened up a gulf that will be difficult for the Lions to close. Additionally, one of the two wild-card spots belongs to a team that shares the Packers' 5-1 record overall.

Suddenly, this week's home game against Minnesota, a team currently holding the No. 6 seed with a 4-2 record, looks like a must-win.  

Third down

Detroit's ground game continues to be a major concern. After popping off for 186 yards against Kansas City before the bye, the Lions were back to struggling to run the ball, finishing with a season-low 56 yards. It marked the third time the team has been held under 100 yards through five games.

Clearly, the Chiefs are looking like an anomaly more than a sign of progress. They've allowed four straight opponents to rush for 180 yards and are tied for 30th in the league, giving up 5.2 yards per carry. 

Getting on track this week might prove problematic. The Vikings are bringing a top-10 run defense to town. 

Fourth down

Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson goes up for a catch, but loses it on the way down as Packers defensive back Adrian Amos defends in the first quarter.

Speaking of concerns, the Lions gave away more points in the red zone, twice settling for short field goals inside the 10-yard line. 

The Lions are currently tied for 21st when it comes to converting trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. When you look at the leaders in the category, you quickly realize this is an area where Matthew Stafford's skill set is holding the Lions back. 

Mobile quarterbacks are thriving in the red zone. The top four teams, by percentage —Houston, Seattle, Buffalo and Philadelphia — all have dual-threat passers capable of extending and making plays with their feet. Stafford's not a statue, by any means, but running, especially by design, is not his forte. 

With a pocket passer, and an inconsistent ground game, the Lions need to find more creative ways to finish off scoring series, whether it's as simple as more bunch formations or as complex as rolling out a few more gadget plays close to the goal line.

And, perhaps most importantly, you can't make execution errors. T.J. Hockenson dropping a ball in the end zone this week is a perfect example.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers