Detroit — They bring in new players, experienced players, young players. They add star names and no-names, adjust schemes and slogans. And yet somehow, the Lions can’t escape their simple, stinking sameness.
You’d call it incredible if you hadn’t seen it so many times before. The Lions built a big fourth-quarter lead in the season-opener Sunday, and yet you sensed what was next. When they get comfortable, it’s time to get uncomfortable. The Bears rallied and the Lions retreated, and Chicago pulled out a 27-23 division victory that had to be agonizing (and familiar) for Lions fans.
It happens way too often under Matt Patricia to be a coincidence, and when the case is made about his future, let this be Exhibit A. Or Exhibits S., O. and L. It was too bad, because the Lions did plenty of promising things early, then too many dumb things to finish it. They blew it again, and the only difference this time was a talented rookie made the final flub. Long before D’Andre Swift dropped the potential winning touchdown pass in the end zone with six seconds left, the Lions already had flubbed all over themselves.
In last year’s opener, the Lions led the Cardinals 24-6 and ended up tied, 27-27. This time, they led 23-6 and lost on Anthony Miller’s 27-yard touchdown reception from Mitch Tribusky with 1:54 left. Somehow, the Lions have turned consistency into a sad punchline.
If there had been fans in Ford Field, they’d have booed the Lions off the field. It was a miserable finish, compounded by the redundancy. The Lions led the NFL last season in blown fourth-quarter leads with seven, and they considered it evidence they’re close to a turnaround from 3-12-1. They talked about the need to finish opponents and called it “Dagger Time,” emblazoned on a large sign high in the stadium rafters.
Of course, they pointed the dagger in the wrong direction, because it’s what the Lions do. Let’s get all the bitter poetry out of the way — Stagger Time, Laggard Time, Haggard Time. The Lions have experienced players, from Matthew Stafford to the newly acquired Adrian Peterson, who was a force in his debut. And yet when they need it, there’s no swagger and no dagger.
Patricia was asked if there’s something missing in his fourth-quarter coaching, and he flashed a rare bite of emotion.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I’ve got probably one of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter in the history of the NFL, where I think I did a pretty good job. … We got to do a better job. We’ve got a team right now that is different than the previous two years.”
Well, is it? That was frustration talking when Patricia referenced the game-winning interception when he was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. It was awkward considering current Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was the Seahawks’ coordinator then. And also because Patricia insists on looking forward, not backward.
But you can’t help it. Patricia and GM Bob Quinn likely have their jobs on the line this season, and this is why. So many mistakes, mental and otherwise, with eight penalties for 77 yards. Jamie Collins, another experienced newcomer from the Patriots – where they supposedly know better — got ejected in the second quarter for lowering his head and bumping referee Alex Kemp while trying to show what happened on the previous play. Even if no malice was intended, it was beyond foolish.
Collins is one of six new defensive starters, and he was gone before halftime of his first game. The Lions already were missing their first-round pick, Jeff Okudah, sidelined with a hamstring injury. They lost two more cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, to injury during the game, which partly explained why Trubisky, awful early, could get hot late.
He was sacked only once, and was eight for 10 in the fourth quarter with three touchdown passes. The Lions’ defense, which has been notoriously passive under Patricia, got virtually no pressure on Trubisky when it mattered.
“I feel like we missed opportunities throughout the game,” said Trey Flowers, another veteran perhaps dealing with culture shock. “We gotta do a better job of keeping the energy, keeping the focus and keeping the discipline.”
This had to be especially painful, a fifth straight loss to the Bears. Stafford was solid, completing 24 of 42 passes for 297 yards, despite missing injured top receiver Kenny Golladay. But in the fourth quarter, Stafford threw an interception on a tipped pass and committed a major gaffe.
Trying to run out the clock with a 23-13 lead at Chicago’s 33, he didn’t get rid of the ball and took a sack. That pushed the Lions to the fringe of field-goal range, and Matt Prater missed a 55-yarder. For the record, I have no problem with Patricia’s decision to attempt it because Prater is one of the all-time best at long range. Also for the record, I do have a problem with the Lions not riding Peterson even more. He ripped off a pair of 14-yard runs just before the critical sack.
At the end, from the Bears’ 16 with 11 seconds left, Stafford lofted a perfect pass to Swift. The rookie dropped it as he crossed the goal line, and at that point, the Ford Field P.A. system desperately needed a loud, gasping “Noooooo” sound effect.
“I think we had our chances on offense, and we took our fair share of shots in the fourth quarter,” Stafford said. “I don’t think there’s a mentality issue at all. I think the whole fourth quarter we’re just talking to each other trying to say, let’s go finish this thing.”
Stafford has been saying similar things for 12 years. It doesn’t seem to matter who comes through here, and how much they’ve done elsewhere, they’re not immune to the crunch-time malady.
Peterson, 35, is in his 14th season and played against the Lions for years as a Viking. He ran hard for 93 yards, and if there was a home crowd during the pandemic, he’d be a crowd favorite. He was asked if he felt the pressure of trying to change the mentality the Lions have harbored.
“I feel that pressure, especially when you lose this type of game, a division game at home,” Petersons said. “It’s ultimately a long season, and we can’t let this divide us. We have to take the good from this negative situation. A lot of missed opportunities; we clean up those things and we’re up, like, 30 points easily.”
The Lions rarely get to that point, and Peterson just had the displeasure of seeing it up close. The names and faces change and the painful particulars get shuffled, but the Lions still find a way to limp to the finish, no matter who and how they start.