Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NFL: Same Old Lions

If there's one redeeming feature about this Lions' season it's that it's teaching a whole new generation of fans just what it means to bleed the Honolulu Blue. Today's young fan has known nothing but the futility of the Millen years. They expect the Lions to be a joke, to be absolutely wretched, and that their loyalty is going to be spent cheering on a hopeless team. But real Lions fans know different. The tragedy of the Lions isn't that they're the worst team in the league. It's that they're just good enough to fill you with hope so that it hurts that much more when it's dashed. Finally, irrevocably, whatever fleeting illusion of competency shattered on the rocky shoals of reality. Just when you had started to believe.

It's been fifty years of that, after all. A tradition of losing in the NFL matched, surpassed only by one other team. The Arizona Cardinals. But they've at least been run out of town on a rail once or twice. The Lions have been spreading depression throughout southeast Michigan this whole time.

This weekend's contest was an epic showdown between these two worst franchises. Detroit came in riding high on a winning streak. Flush with the highest victory total of the Millen era. Touted as a playoff team. There were whispers of coaches of the year even of rewarding the GM for being right twice a day with a nod in the executive territory. Starting to be respected, starting to be acclaimed. Maybe not as the best team in the league but no longer an unfortunate doormat. A sterling turnover record. A resurgent running game. A passing attack that gives defensive co-ordinators pause. And the defense finally living up to its potential.

Arizona, on the other hand, came in limping. Kurt Warner about two years past his sell-by date, playing injured. His arm so ravaged that he can't properly hand the ball off and the team needs to bring in a sub at quarterback near the goal line. A sieve-like defense. The worst team in the league when it came to turning the ball over or scooping up fumbles. Languishing at the bottom of the league with a 3-5 record. Not bad enough to even be truly awful thanks to the ineptitude of teams like the Dolphins.

So what happened? Detroit lost the ball five times. Five times. Holding on to the ball has been their hallmark this season. But there was Kitna throwing it up for grabs and dropping it on the turf.

And the team abandoned the run in order to attack the Cardinal's supposedly weak secondary. That worked out well sicne they came up with big picks and pressure all day long. While the rushing that the Lions had rediscovered was completely forgotten. It's not just that they rushed for -18 yards (And it could have been even worse. Unlike college, the pros don't count yards lost to sacks in a team's rushing total.) it's that they only ran the ball eight times. Eight times.

The Lions only had the ball for something like nine minutes in the first half. That's the dangerous part of Mad Martz's pass wacky attack. When it works it can put up a lot of points but when it doesn't it blows up in your face. And it's going to if you don't have a credible running threat.

Anyhow, like the Philadelphia game if you watched that the Lions' prospects the rest of the season seem grim. As has been driven into the ground, their schedule gets much tougher now. They have to play most of the contenders in the NFC. Only three of their remaining opponents have losing records, a marked contrast to the first half of the schedule. The meat grinder of the schedule is the next two games. First the Giants and then, five days later, an epic showdown on Thanksgiving day against the seemingly unstoppable Packers.

The TV execs must be ecstatic because, finally, the traditional Thanksgiving game actually going to matter. I just hope that it's still competitive by the time we're pulling up to wherever our diminished clan is gathering this year (We've got my brother off in sunny California, he can't justify the cost of a ticket home. Not until Christmas, anyway. An uncle in pacific northwest who might or might not make the trip depending on if his ex-wife is there. And cousins scattered throughout the east coast who are, even now, contemplating the drive. I should really check on where we're planning to hold it. Oh, and come up with a desert to bring as has, apparently, become expected of me.). That the score is close enough by the half to justify sitting there, stuffed with turkey, without the room turning into a discussion of just what's wrong with our team.

It's going to be a big change from previous years, anyway. If you ask me, if the Lions can at least get a split in those two games then they're going to be in good shape for the closing stretch. That'd put them at 7-4 but more importantly, they'd have beaten some actual competition. And, no, Chicago doesn't count. Not any more. Beat New York or Green Bay, though, and the Lions can official be plotted on the map again. And it's not as daunting a task as it sounds because the Lions have a hidden weapon here: home field.

They've been a different team at home this year. Pumped up by the crowd they've gone undefeated at Ford Field. It's on the road that they've had their troubles (Like Washington. And even against Arizona they've in the middle of long losing streak. It's not so surprising. What puzzles me is the Philly game. At least against the Cards they made it look respectable although it was just as bad a loss when you get right down to it.) but they're stronger in their friendly confines. If they can pull one of these games out, win the ones they should (Always a risky proposition with the Lions), and pick up another win or two along the way then they can definitely make the playoffs. And crush a whole new batch of hopes and dreams with an early exit. Ah, it's like old times.

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