Sunday, November 18, 2007

Detroit Lions Let Game, Potentially Playoffs, Slip Through Their Fingers

The defense wanted it, and they stopped the New York Giants twice in the last six minutes of the game. The fans wanted it, and they made more noise during those two defensive stops than perhaps ever has been made at Ford Field. The offense wanted it, but, unlike the defense, which stepped up in crunch time, and the fans, who allowed the Lions to drag their unbelieving souls to the brink of jubilation, they could not come through, and in the end, the air went out of Ford Field, and potentially out of the Lions 2008 season, when a Jon Kitna pass slipped through the usually sure-handed fingers of Shaun McDonald and into the waiting arms of a New York Giant defender. And just like that, instead of pulling of another miraculous comeback, and scoring 14 points in the last six minutes of the game, the Lions lost, for the second straight week, falling to 6-4 on the season, and putting themselves on the verge of blowing a 6-2 first half of the season.

For the second straight week, the Lions defense, much maligned during the run-up to the regular season, continually kept the Lions in the game. They forced turnovers (two), kept the Giants out of the endzone for most of game (surrendering only one touchdown) and when it mattered, in the fourth quarter, they stopped the Giants twice, giving the Lions two chances to win the game. The first drive ended with a Jon Kitna interception on an under thrown ball in the end-zone to Shaun McDonald. The second, with under two minutes to play and the Lions nearing the red-zone, ended with a more accurately thrown Kitna pass bounced off of McDonald's hands. And for the second straight week, the Lions lost all semblance of a running game. While Kevin Jones did have positive yards this week (as opposed to last Sunday's -4 performance, -18 for the team), he still only had 11 carries for 25 yards, and that was it for the Lions running game. Two weeks, 7 total rushing yards. Suddenly Mike Martz doesn't look like such a genius. The offense, outside of parts of games early this season, has never been in sync, and never put the games together everyone expected. And that's despite improved play from the offensive line, and all the talent you could ask for. Yet, something, somewhere, isn't working, and the Lions are running out of time to figure it out.

There are two things the Lions must do if they will save their season and make the playoffs. First is get Kevin Jones going again. In the three game Lions winning streak (before this recent two game slide) Kevin Jones ran for 76, 105, and 71 yards. The team had 147, 119, and 130. The last two games? -4 and 25 for Jones, -18 and 25 for the team. That's inexcusable, I don't care how much Mike Martz likes to throw the ball, and how much the Lions feel the matchups favor their passing game. At least we tried to run the ball this game, unlike last week, but we gave up quickly, and didn't have much success when we did try to run. That has to change.

And as my colleague Tom Kowalski wrote Sunday, Calvin Johnson needs to play all the time. His touchdown catch today, fighting for the ball over the outstretched arms of Kevin Dockery, was a thing of beauty, and there aren't two or three wide receivers in the league (Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and maybe Tory Holt) who could have made that catch. The fact that he isn't on the field for the majority of the Lions offensive plays is mind boggling. He already is a special player, and he could be an elite player, at a young age, if the Lions just gave him that chance. I know he's been fighting a sore back, and I know Mike Martz has confidence in Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey (and both are valuable parts of the offense) but Johnson is a game changer. He must become a larger part of the Lions offense going forward.

The season isn't over for the Lions, but a three game losing streak (with a loss Thursday against Green Bay on Thanksgiving) may do it. The Lions still have the Wild Card lead, at the moment, but with Arizona, Washington, and Philadelphia nipping at their heels, and each of those teams holding the tie-breaker over the Lions, it won't be easy down the stretch. And with the next game just three days away, the Lions won't have much time to think about it, which is good. Because they need to keep playing one game, one snap at a time. Leave the playoff speculation, and hair-pulling, to us.

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