The Detroit Lions have five games remaining on their 2013 schedule. The league says those games are against the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Baltimore Ravens, the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings.
That’s only part of the story.
The Lions are, in truth, playing not only those aforementioned teams, but a plethora of other opponents.
They are, in no particular order: their own history; their culture; the space between their ears.
Two weeks ago, the Lions were 6-3 and in first place all by themselves. It was rarefied air for a franchise that hasn’t won a divisional title in 20 years.
Then the Lions went into Pittsburgh, and that’s where history showed up, along with the Steelers in their bumble bee uniforms.
No Lions team had walked off the field in Pittsburgh with a victory since 1955. And the 2013 Lions didn’t, either. A strange fake field goal call on the wet, sloppy field turned the tide in the Steelers’ favor.
Sunday, the Lions , presumably after a week of licking their wounds, came home to play the 2-8 Tampa Bay Bucs. First place was still where the Lions resided, even after the loss in Pittsburgh. The Bears shared the penthouse with a 6-4 record, but Chicago’s 6-4 wasn’t as good as Detroit’s 6-4, because the Lions have beaten the Bears twice.
The Bucs didn’t have to bother showing up, because the Lions beat themselves.
Five turnovers, and a blocked punt inside the 20 yard line—that’s what the Lions did to self-destruct. The Lions proved to be a far more difficult opponent for the Lions than the Bucs did.
Fox Sports’ Brian Billick tried to sell the viewers on the old “they’re the best 2-8 team you’ll ever see” theory regarding the Bucs all afternoon. The Bucs could be 6-4, Billick repeatedly bleated.
The Buccaneers were 2-8 because if the Lions had played a similar football game against, say, the New England Patriots, the Pats would have been ahead by three touchdowns in the closing moments, instead of hanging on for dear life and hoping for another Lions turnover, as the Bucs were on the Lions’ final drive.
So now the Lions are 6-5. The Bears lost on Sunday, as well, and the Packers tied the Vikings. First place is still Lions territory, unbelievably.
Maybe this is the way the Lions prefer it.
More often than not in the Jim Schwartz/Matthew Stafford Era, the Lions have fared better when they’ve needed the flair for the dramatic. They seem to have a visceral need for playing football with guns pointed at their heads.
When they don’t play under that kind of pressure, the gun is held in their own hands and is pointed squarely at their feet.
There are five games remaining, and a division which was the Lions’ to lose is on the verge of being lost.
They have to play their on-field opponents, as well as battle the mystique of being the Lions.
Isiah Thomas once spoke of going up against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs in the mid-1980s, when the Pistons were trying like mad to be where the Celtics had been for decades—championship contenders.
“When you play the Celtics, you’re not just playing a team,” Thomas said. “You’re playing a mind set. You’re playing against history, the court, the leprechauns. The Celtics aren’t supposed to lose.”
The same can be said when you talk about the Lions when they play…the Lions.
The Lions are playing a mind set now. They’re playing against history. The Lions aren’t supposed to win.
Maybe this is best. Maybe this two-game slide back to the pack (no pun intended) in the NFC North is where the Lions are truly most comfortable.
Maybe they can’t win unless they play football in a ring of fire.
“It’s a five game season,” coach Schwartz said after Sunday’s debacle against Tampa.
It’s a five game season because the Lions have made like a magician and turned it into one.
The players still speak of controlling their own destiny. It’s technically true. The division is still the Lions’ to lose, given the tie breaker edge over the Bears.
The trouble with having a division be yours to lose is that when it’s been 20 years since the last time you finished first, no one is around who remembers what it was like.
The Lions have never been ones to make things easy on themselves, or on their fans.
Here we go again.