ALLEN PARK, Mich. – They’ve sat in their locker room the past three Sundays now, mostly silent, highly annoyed. The results were all the same: loss, loss, loss for the Detroit Lions – an increasingly familiar theme throughout the month of October.
They haven’t been bad losses – at least not in the way teams would categorize bad losses to inferior opponents. No, the four losses the Lions have this season – including the three straight they closed October with – have all come against teams that might be in the playoffs this season.
But they’ve been losses nonetheless, and that’s an issue for a Detroit team that started the season looking like a potential NFC contender.
“We just got to figure it out,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “We got to figure it out quick because right now we’re heading downhill and we need to find a way to lift ourselves up and do it. If we could match our defense’s intensity, we’ll be damn good. That’s really what our lack is. That’s the gap.
“We just don’t have the same intensity and the same drive that those dudes do and we need to figure it out and find it.”
Players and Lions coach Jim Caldwell disputed Ebron’s opinion of intensity throughout the past week, but his overall message is correct. The Lions need to figure out what has been going wrong – and moreover, how to fix it, if they want to contend for anything postseason this season.
Detroit’s offense has struggled in various facets – from red zone to rushing to, at times, passing. The defense, which had sacked opposing quarterbacks 10 times the first four games of the season, has only three sacks in the past three weeks – and none at all in the past two.
Detroit might be running out of time to make corrections, too, as it heads to Green Bay on Monday night. It’s a place in which the Lions have struggled – and that’s being kind. Detroit has won in Wisconsin once in the last quarter-century, an 18-16 win in 2015 that jump-started a 6-2 second half of the season.
The Lions, at 3-4, could use a similar boost against the Packers. Detroit entered this weekend a game-and-a-half out of the last wild-card spot and two-and-a-half games behind Minnesota for the NFC North title. Detroit still has nine games to play, but it’s a reasonably large deficit.
Some of the teams they’ll be competing with for a wild-card berth – Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans from the NFC South – all hold the tiebreaker over the Lions. So each of those teams entered Sunday with a two-and-a-half-game advantage.
Detroit, for now, holds a tiebreaker over Minnesota, but that could disappear if Detroit doesn’t beat Minnesota on Thanksgiving.
“Just got to keep pushing,” safety Miles Killebrew said. “Just got to keep fighting. It’s not as bad as it could be. It’s not as good as we want it to be, you know what I mean. So we’re at a position where we just have to keep fighting, man.”
While things don’t look good for Detroit, there are reasons for optimism. It starts with the Lions’ schedule. Only four teams in the NFC have faced a tougher schedule than Detroit.
After Green Bay on Monday night, the Lions play only two teams – Minnesota on Thanksgiving and the Packers in the regular-season finale – that have winning records as of Monday. So the Lions have made it through the toughest part of their year, at least on paper, and are still hanging around.
Detroit is 16-8 in the second halves of seasons under Caldwell – and the second half of this year starts Tuesday. This shows Caldwell can hold a team together. Last year’s 5-3 regular season closing mark might have been better, too, had Matthew Stafford not injured the middle finger on his throwing hand. Every season under Caldwell, the Lions have had at least a three-game winning streak during the second half of the year – another reason why the Lions have optimism.
Caldwell said he’s “not certain” why his teams in Detroit have been better in the second halves of seasons – but he’d rather be better in the latter half because “those are the times you better be at your best and if you’re faltering at the end, then you’re going to have struggles.”
So is Detroit’s season slipping away? Not many players believe that yet.
“I don’t feel like that,” safety Glover Quin said. “I think every year I’ve been here for the most part, except maybe a couple years, we’ve always been, at some point in the season we’ve been in a two-game losing streak, three-game losing streak and all those questions start to come up. Is it this? Is it that?
“The message is always the same. We stick to what we’re doing. Start to play good football. String some wins together and see where we are at the end.”
The Lions hope this season ends in the playoffs for the third time in four years – the first time Detroit would do that since the 1994-to-1997 seasons. In the 1990s, the Lions made the playoffs six times in nine seasons with Barry Sanders. It is the only time Detroit made the playoffs with that sort of frequency in the Super Bowl era.
A playoff appearance this year would push toward that. And even though Detroit’s second half doesn’t technically start until next week, a win against Green Bay – at Green Bay – could be a catalyst for a back-half run.
So Monday might not be a must-win, but it’s a really-need-to.
“I doesn’t feel like it because we only played, what, one division game and then this is going to be our second one,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “I feel like this is a game that we must win, that we have to win and just to get back in the swing of things, get our momentum going and, you know, just roll off a couple.
“We just got to get back on track, man. We just keep letting these games slip away and that’s something we can’t keep letting happen. Can’t do that. You got to win in November to get in so that’s something that everybody in here understands. We just got to clean up the little small things and get it done, man. Get it done.”