Why the maddening Detroit Lions are the train wreck you can’t stop watching

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Lions would be 3-6 right now if Todd Gurley took a knee, maybe 2-7 if Ron Rivera had managed the clock better at the end of Sunday’s second half.

Then again, if D’Andre Swift held onto that touchdown pass, they’d be 5-4. Or 6-3 if one of the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints or Indianapolis Colts decided to forfeit their game.

Playing the what-if game in the NFL is a fool’s errand, yet we’re all guilty of doing it at times.

The Lions are better than their record. No, worse.

No, nine games into the season, just past the halfway mark, the Lions are exactly what their record says they are and it’s time to sit back and embrace the ride.

Want Matt Patricia fired? Hang tight, it might happen Jan. 4.

Prefer to keep those playoff hopes alive? It’s almost Thanksgiving, and Detroit is technically in the mix.

Love Matthew Stafford’s late-game heroics? Odds are you’ll see more of those, too.

At 4-5, the Lions are not a particularly good football team right now, and certainly not majorly improved — owner Sheila Ford Hamp’s bar for retaining the current regime — from what they were a season ago. (Spare me the song and dance about they’ve won more games than they did in 2019; the Lions were a mediocre team, just like they are now, when Stafford was healthy, and only finished 3-12-1 because of the broken bones in their quarterback’s back.)

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun watching them the next seven weeks, and Lord knows we all could use a little bit of that right now.

The Lions visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a game between two teams that have no business making the playoffs, and probably won’t. On Thanksgiving, they host the Houston Texans, who have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson but are otherwise in a pretty dire state.

Chances are, neither game will qualify as an instant classic, but like Lions-Falcons last month and Lions-Washington on Sunday — other games featuring bad teams — that does not mean they’ll lack entertainment value.

Look, I firmly believe Patricia was a Chase Young penalty away from being fired. Had Detroit  blown another double-digit lead — a 21-point one, this time, to floundering Washington — there would have been no reason to keep the team’s underachieving head coach.

But the Lions caught a few breaks and made enough plays in the final 16 seconds that they woke up Monday morning still clinging to playoff life.

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Patricia did not like my question Monday about what he makes of the criticism his team sometimes faces after wins. In the NFL, a team’s record is all that matters. There are no style points to be had and no voters to impress; only owners and fans.

But as football coaches often say when they build up their bad opponents as “good” teams, records don’t matter as much as the tape, and it’s pretty clear what the tape says about the Lions in mid-November.

“What do I think of criticism? I don’t know, Dave,” a clearly annoyed Patricia said. “I just, I think for us we try to focus on what do we got to do better, what do we got to improve on? And I think we stay pretty consistent with all this stuff, I think you guys know that by now. I think for us it’s just to try to go evaluate the game and what do we got to do better, how do we got to play better, and certainly there’s definitely things in this game that we can do better.

“We know that. We’ll go out and work on them this week and try to improve. Never upset about a win, though, I’ll tell you that much.”

Nor should he or the Lions be.

Wins are not easy to come by in the NFL, as the Lions have proven for decades, which is all the more reason to sit back and enjoy the ride.

If the Lions put enough of them together, they might mess around and make the postseason for the first time in four years. If they don’t, there’s no secret how this season will end.

So rather than pray for the ax to drop on Patricia or for the Lions to suddenly get their act together and join the NFL’s elite, buckle up for the roller coaster of emotion ahead.

There’ll be some good, and surely some bad, and when the holidays are done, we’ll all be able to dig into some kind of feast.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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