Wojo: Lions’ season suffers final fate, debate shifts to injured Stafford

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
 
| The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s a story everyone around here knows painfully well. When the Lions show a glimpse of something, anything, here come the Packers to snuff it out, with Aaron Rodgers stomping on the dying embers.

The Lions matched the Packers for a while, and Matthew Stafford matched Rodgers for a while, and for a sliver of time, fans could entertain fanciful thoughts. The fanciful stuff is over now, and reality is punishingly clear. By the end, Stafford was in the locker room nursing injured ribs and Green Bay was clinching the NFC North with a 31-24 victory at Ford Field Sunday.

Stafford left the sideline twice to get re-wrapped after taking a hit in the fourth quarter but couldn’t return, and Chase Daniel finished it out. The team was awaiting a final determination after X-rays, but with three games left and the Lions (5-8) out of contention, Stafford has nothing left to show, although it wouldn’t be a surprise if he tried. And the Lions basically have nothing left to gain.

Interim coach Darrell Bevell said it was too early to gauge Stafford’s status for next week’s game at Tennessee, but in keeping with his upbeat style, lauded his quarterback and his team.

“Matthew Stafford is as tough as they come, a huge competitor,” Bevell said.  “I know he’ll want to be out there with his team, so it’ll have to be pretty drastic for him not to be out there. … I’m proud of the team. These guys are ready to fight. They were in it to the end, going toe to toe with one of the best teams in the NFC. I couldn’t be happier for these guys and the way they played.”

Yet this had a finality to it, both with Stafford’s injury and Rodgers’ ruthless dissection. The Bevell bounce of energy and spirit, evident in last week’s victory over the Bears, continued early in this one. But as you might have noticed, the Lions’ defense isn’t remotely capable of keeping up.

Number’s up

In the end, it was more of the same — offensive flashes, defensive collapses. Tied 14-14 at halftime, the Packers controlled the ball for most of the third quarter, and naturally, it was a 6-yard touchdown scramble by Rodgers that put them ahead.

Rodgers finished 26-for-33 for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Stafford was 24-for-34 for 244 yards and was sacked four times. He was hurt on a 6-yard run to Green Bay’s 2 in the fourth quarter, a classic example of his unyielding toughness, crunched by Green Bay nose tackle Kenny Clark. He stayed in for one more snap, handed the ball to Kerryon Johnson for a 2-yard touchdown, then was done with 6:30 left in the game.

Done for a while? Done as a Lion? I’m not ready to get that dramatic because the guy has played through a broken back and broken fingers, no matter the team’s record. But you hope caution and common sense prevail.

Stafford tried to loosen up on the sideline, but Bevell said the pain and difficulty throwing made it impossible to put him back in. Stafford didn’t speak with the media afterward but his teammates spoke volumes about him.

“He’s honestly one of the toughest guys and competitors I’ve ever been on a team with,” said Daniel, in his 12th NFL season. “The dude’s a warrior. He’s hurting right now, but he’s working through whatever he’s got and will try to be back out there with the team.”

The Lions came out bouncing again with energy, grabbing a quick 7-0 lead. As an interim, Bevell has been smart to push positivity and offer clean slates, and it’s not just a verbal message. It’s one thing to say you’re going to play free-wheeling, and another thing to actually do it.

On the opening drive, Stafford was doing it again, firing the ball with confidence. He marched the Lions 75 yards, completing six of seven passes, and the 1-yard touchdown to T.J. Hockenson was a nifty shovel toss, a slice of creativity the Lions haven’t often shown.

It’s important to note, this is a fresh start for Bevell too. He was the offensive coordinator under Matt Patricia, but clearly operated under certain restrictions. In the two games since Patricia was fired, the Lions haven’t tried to force the running game as much, and Stafford has been free to fling deep more often. There was another attempted flea-flicker, which failed, and a Bevell bevy of screen passes.

“All of us are playing for our jobs, really, every week, every game,” Bevell said before the game. “I don’t think it’s something that becomes a distraction. I always worry about over-trying and trying to get outside of what we’re doing to make a play.”

Playing with purpose

For a good chunk of this one, the Lions played like they embraced those stakes, even if the playoffs were a distant, distant dream. By halftime, Stafford and Rodgers were matching touchdown drives and almost perfectly matching statistics. Stafford was using all his receivers, from the dependable — Hockenson, Danny Amendola, Marvin Jones — to little-used Mohamed Sanu and Quintez Cephus.

A big boost was provided by D’Andre Swift, who rumbled 17 yards on a screen and added a 3-yard touchdown blast. The Lions’ offense is different with Swift, who’d missed three games with concussion-like symptoms. It’d be even more different if Kenny Golladay ever returns from his hip injury, which has sidelined him six games.

These are in-season moves that will help determine offseason moves. Obviously, the new GM and coach will have their own opinions, but Swift is a keeper, and so are several members of the developing offensive line, led by Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker. When Swift is in, the screen game opens up dramatically, something the Lions can use to tailor Swift (sincere apology).

“We believed we have the pieces and the guys in the locker room to compete with anybody,” Decker said. “There’s no moral victory there. There were positives, there were good things to see, but at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done.”

It’s hard to find many keepers on defense — perhaps outside of Romeo Okwara, scheduled to be a free agent — but it’s easy to find holes. Rodgers found them all game long, deftly dodging pressure, deflating the Lions with third-down throws and runs. The Packers have the top-scoring offense in the league and piled up 410 yards, converting eight of 11 third downs.

This is always the danger when facing Rodgers, who at 37 is having one of his best seasons and certainly will challenge Patrick Mahomes for MVP. The other danger was, the Packers (10-3) still had plenty of incentive. Even though they clinched the NFC North with a Vikings loss Sunday, there’s the little issue of edging New Orleans (10-3) for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Rodgers was relentless and receiver Davante Adams was tremendous. And again, the Lions had no answers on defense, although few teams ever do against Rodgers. I don’t know if the Lions truly had a chance to kick-start anything, but this felt like a last gasp. And perhaps one last wince for their quarterback.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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