Detroit Lions’ playoff push possible; Bills loss illustrates Goff’s shortcomings at QB

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions are one of the seven best teams in the NFC.

They were trending that way before Thursday’s Thanksgiving loss to the Buffalo Bills, and going toe-to-toe for 60 minutes with one of the best teams in football only solidified their place as a team no one should want to face down the stretch.

The Lions play physical, beat-you-up football on offense, they’re relentless on defense and they finally look like they’re built for the long haul. Their best players on offense are signed through at least 2023, their best players on defense are on rookie contracts and they have two first-round picks to hoard talent in next year’s draft.

The Lions are going to make a run at the playoffs over the next six weeks. They’re playing too well, and their schedule is too favorable not to.

They play four of their final six games against teams with losing records, including the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars next, and they have the head-to-head tie-breaker with two of the teams — the New York Giants and Washington Commanders — they are fighting with for wild card berths.

“I think over the last four weeks, we just are such a different team, it’s such a different feel,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said Thursday. “We know we can beat anybody. We know we can play with anybody. We know we can really dominate anybody.”

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The Lions didn’t dominate anyone Thursday, or even make enough plays to win. But they did do enough things right to buttress the growing belief that their rebuild is on the right track.

A month ago, the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream, and the odds aren’t great the Lions make the postseason now. But there are not many teams in the NFC that are discernibly better than the Lions, which should make for a fun final six weeks.

The Philadelphia Eagles are the class of the NFC, and the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys are not too far behind. But the Lions should have won in Minnesota and had the Cowboys on the ropes in Dallas until they fell apart in a turnover-riddled second half.

The San Francisco 49ers have looked like one of the NFC’s best teams over the past month, the Seattle Seahawks are closing in on a playoff spot and it’s never safe to count Tom Brady out. But the Lions are better than everyone else in the conference based on the eye test and what’s happened on the field.

Of course, better or not, there is no playoff committee that seeds teams in the NFL and the eye test doesn’t matter, so the only way the Lions can claim the NFC’s seventh and final playoff spot is to earn it with wins.

At 4-7, they have little margin for error over the final six weeks and can afford at most one more loss if they’re going to get in. But their fellow wildcard contenders are in similar shape.

The Giants (7-4) have lost three of their past four games and face a cadre of potential playoff teams down the stretch. The Commanders (6-5) are two games in front of the Lions and have two elimination games with the Giants before Christmas. And the Atlanta Falcons (5-6) are one game up on the Lions, but likely need a win Sunday at Washington to have a chance.

“There’s no secret formula,” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “Nobody’s going to hand us anything. We got to take everything we get just like we have been doing and like you said, it’s a small margin for error but that’s why we play this level. That’s why it’s the NFL. It’s tight, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Let’s talk QBs

The goal, of course, isn’t just to make the playoffs, it’s to win a ring, and that’s why, as promising as the Lions’ rebuild looks now, there still is caution ahead.

Thursday’s loss to the Bills illustrated a point I’ve made since the Lions acquired Goff in the Matthew Stafford trade last January: Goff is a good player and a competent placeholder for the time being, but there’s a limit to how far he can take a team. That’s why the Rams traded for Stafford, and why I continue to believe the Lions need to address the quarterback spot before they get too far along in their rebuild.

On Thursday, the most glaring difference between the Lions and Bills was at the quarterback position, especially with the game on the line.

Josh Allen had two drives in the final 10 minutes of a neck-and-neck game and led the Bills to nine points (with a missed PAT). He completed 7 of 8 passes and ran for two first downs on a 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, then after the Lions tied the game at 25, he marched Buffalo 48 yards in three plays using his arm and legs.

With 23 seconds left and the Lions praying for overtime, Allen threw a laser of a pass down the middle of the field to Stefon Diggs for 36 yards. On the fringes of field goal range, the Bills called designed quarterback runs on their next two plays and Allen picked up valuable yards with his feet. He ran for 3 yards, then 9 more, then retreated to the bench, exhausted, to watch Tyler Bass kick the game-winning field goal.

Goff, on his final two drives, nearly threw an interception that would have ranked alongside Mark Sanchez’s butt fumble, Leon Lett’s failed field goal recovery and Jim Schwartz’s challenge flag as one of the most boneheaded plays in Thanksgiving history, then led the Lions to the game-tying field goal but missed a chance for so much more.

On third-and-1 with 32 seconds left, Goff underthrew DJ Chark on a sideline route that had the potential to go for a touchdown. Chark was open, a step in front of his defender, and while he was late looking for the pass, Goff missed the throw.

The Lions had three other receivers matched in man coverage on the play, including Amon-Ra St. Brown, who appeared to be open on a shallow drag across the middle of the field.

“That was a great call,” Goff said. “There’s four receivers on the play, and you can throw to any of them. And the guy I picked was open, but we didn’t hit it so we can second-guess it all we want. But no, I love the call and wish I would have made it work some way or another.”

How great the call was is debatable. Certainly, Goff had multiple viable options on the play, but the Lions could have tried a more high-percentage conversion if they were going to kick on fourth-and-1 (which they did) and the play was reminiscent of a fourth-and-1 they failed to convert from a similar spot on the field in a loss last month to the Miami Dolphins. On that play, Goff threw inside and behind Josh Reynolds in the front corner of the same end zone.

At some point, Lions coaches have to realize Goff is not equipped to make that throw in that type of situation.

Goff played Allen to a draw for most of Thursday, even outplayed him in some ways. The same can be said for the Lions and Bills as teams.

Taylor Decker said he felt the Lions were the more physical team Thursday, able to move the Bills with their offensive line early in the game. The Lions never looked outmatched, they simply did not make enough plays to win.

That happens with young teams and it happens in the NFL. But the reality is, the Lions will never be in a position to win big until they find a quarterback like Allen they can hand the ball to and get out of the way.

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

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