Yesterday was frustrating. The Lions lost a close game against a good opponent at home. It was a game they certainly could have won, but didn't. This isn't exactly new for this team, but the frustration felt different. I wasn't frustrated that the Lions made several mistakes that cost them the game, even though they most certainly did. I wasn't frustrated that the coaching staff made some questionable choices, even though I think they may have. I wasn't even frustrated with Sam Martin's poorly-timed shank. (Okay, I'm lying on that last one.) But, still, my overall frustration wasn't with the Lions at all. They played well enough to overcome all of those small mistakes. My frustration was with the game of football and the NFL. A game in which there is almost always a winner and a loser, and the difference between the two often has nothing to do with talent.
The Bengals and the Lions went toe-to-toe with each other all game. Each team made huge plays in huge situations. Both teams' offenses were on fire, putting up almost identical numbers (Lions: 434 yards, Bengals: 421) while neither team turned the ball over all game. It was a clean game, with very little interruption/mistakes from the refs (with one outrageous, but not exactly game-changing exception). But the Bengals came out on top, and the Lions only got an "L" for their efforts, and fell out of first place.
This represents a new achievement as a Lions: losing a fairly well-played game because football is a game that's played on a razor-thin edge of wins and losses and they just so happened to fall on the losing side this week. The Lions are no strangers to losing close games, but in the past it has felt like there was a laundry-list of mistakes and comical errors that cost them the game. They were losing games because of mistakes that are typical of bad teams: drops, turnovers, penalties, etc.
While there were some missed opportunities on Sunday, they weren't of the normal variety. They only committed four penalties all game. No terrible drops or fumbles come to mind. They didn't turn the ball over once (and have no only turned the ball over once in three weeks now). Sure, there was an overthrow by Stafford here and there, and the defense gave up another few big plays. Those are things that happen to every team, good and bad.
What really cost the Lions the game was the cruelty of NFL luck. Perhaps the biggest play of the game was the blocked field goal; a play in which injury forced a change-up in the formation. Though Schwartz denies that the change in personnel had any effect on the block, I remain unconvinced. And then there was the shanked punt. Nothing could have been more random, yet devastating. The rookie had been kicking the hell out of the ball for the past few weeks, and chose the most devastating time to make his biggest blunder of the season. An average kick from him in that situation almost certainly results in overtime.
But that's the way it goes in the NFL. Good teams lose all the time. Look at how the Patriots lost yesterday. A new rule -- that I'm sure no fan had even heard of -- gave the Jets a second chance at an overtime field goal for the win. Without the penalty, New England would have had great field position and almost certainly would have won that game.
So many tiny errors can have seismic affects on the outcome of a football game, that every team is bound to fall victim to one during a season. That's why it's so unbelievable that a team can go undefeated (or winless) in today's NFL. But it's why the Lions lost on Sunday.
Since most people find it unsatisfying to put the blame of the loss on seemingly random misfortune, I'd like to address the most common scapegoats from Sunday's game:
- Matthew Stafford and his overthrows. Did Stafford miss a few potentially big plays? Absolutely. Could they have swayed this loss into a win? Possibly. But it's hard to fault a guy who threw for 350+ yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a defense that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers couldn't crack. It was the first time in 20 games that a quarterback had thrown for 300 yards against the Bengals defense, and Stafford did so with impressive efficiency (8/14 on third down conversions).
- Jim Schwartz's ineptitude at the end of the game. The Lions were in a awfully tough spot at the end of the game. They were 1st-and-10 at their own 6 yard line with 1:43 left in the game. Each team had two timeouts. According to Advanced NFL Stats, the Lions expected points starting from their own 6 yard line is roughly -0.5 points. In other words, the Bengals were more likely to score next, despite not even having the ball. So, ideally, the best situation would be to run out the clock, and see a better scenario in overtime. Unfortunately, the Bengals had two timeouts, so running the ball three times would have resulted in Cincinnati getting the ball back with about a minute left with a short field ahead of them.
Instead, Schwartz showed a little aggressiveness by throwing on second down. And it worked. The Lions got a first down. If there is an argument to be had, it would be that he should have been more conservative at that point and just ran the clock out from there. Instead, the Lions threw it three straight times. Still, I think even this was the right move. The Lions were looking for short, safe passes up the middle. This way, they could still bleed some clock, while giving their players opportunities to get some yards after the catch and potentially get them in field goal position. As it turns out, Calvin got his feet tangled with a defender on second down, Stafford failed to account for a blitzer on third down, and the Lions threw two incomplete passes.
Still, with a decent punt, the Bengals would have likely had to go at least 30 yards in 20 seconds with only one timeout. Instead, Martin choked. It's not on Schwartz for failing to account for that anomaly.
I do, however, have a problem with Schwartz's forfeit of a possession at the end of the first half (again). 41 seconds from your own 20 yard line with two timeouts is plenty of time to go out and try to get into field goal range. Stafford has been extremely safe with the ball lately, so there's no reason to play scared of a deep turnover. I know the Lions offense has been more of the long, elaborate drive variety lately, but this roster is good enough to execute a two (or one) minute offense at the end of halves.
- Scott Linehan's play calling. 434 yards of offense, 24 points, no turnovers, no sacks. All against a top 10 defense who hadn't given up over 400+ yards of offense all season. The offensive gameplan worked.
- The defense. This is the best argument for a scapegoat you can have. Andy Dalton had no trouble all game moving the Bengals up and down the field. However, the defense forced the Bengals to punt on three of their last four possessions, and the last possession is hard to fault the defense on. They ceded 15 yards total. Still, if you really have the need to find a scapegoat, the defense is probably a good place to start.