DETROIT -- December 5, 2010.
"That date stands out in my mind," Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola was saying in low tones Sunday afternoon. Not since that seemingly mundane winter day had Raiola's Lions lost, in any venue or under any circumstances. Over the next 312 days, the Lions ran off 13 consecutive victories, if you count the 2011 preseason, and captured both the city of Detroit and the NFL by storm.
Now, as Raiola said Sunday: "We'll see what we're made of."
The Lions were bound to lose at some point. I don't think any of us were expecting an undefeated season. But we'll soon see if they are a team built for long-term success or if they will tumble back to the rest of the NFL pack.
I suspect it is the former, even after a disappointing 25-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a game punctuated by a stalled offense and concluded by a fracas that revealed a new level of passion and/or lunacy from the Lions' head coach. I know that Lions coach Jim Schwartz was offended by a purported breach of postgame protocol, but to me Jim Harbaugh's jubilance was both compliment and a comment on the Lions' progress and new standing within the league.
Before Dec. 5 of last year, NFL teams didn't celebrate when they beat the Lions. They walked off the field numbly because a victory was a matter of course. Harbaugh and his 49ers are now 5-1, and they fully recognized how formidable the Lions have become.
"We overcame a really good team," Harbaugh said.
The Lions lost Sunday for a number of schematic reasons. They were at a loss against 49ers running back Frank Gore, who ripped off a 55-yard run in the third quarter and finished with 141 yards on 15 carries. Their offense, meanwhile, was left dinking and dunking down the field, inhibited by an ineffective running game and distracted by a 49ers pass rush that sacked quarterback Matthew Stafford five times and hit on him 10 other occasions.
That the 49ers sent an extra pass rusher on only one passing play, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is a bit concerning. But for the most part, the Lions played step-for-step with an opponent that has now emerged as one of the NFC's top teams.
In the grand scheme, that's an encouraging sign. But here is a more important one: The Lions were a determined and resolute group afterward, one that recognizes its progress and has no intention of losing the opportunity it has created for itself in 2011.
As silly as it might have appeared to outsiders, players were thrilled to see Schwartz's postgame charge at Harbaugh and seemed intent on channeling his passion.
"Whether you've got a suit on or you're suiting up for the game," receiver Nate Burleson said, "everyone in this organization is passionate about what we put together and the logo on our helmets. It's not just players. You guys might see it on game day. We talk to you when we're open to the media, but I don't think you guys truly understand how passionate we are about being a good team. And that is obviously seen in the coaches as well as the players."
I know most Lions fans aren't happy with my post on Schwartz's postgame antics. I'm going to stand my ground. I think there are better ways for an NFL coach to comport himself in a moment of high emotions, regardless of the circumstances.
But I don't mind saying that Schwartz's reaction is one of the reasons I think the Lions will move past this loss and get back to it next week against the Atlanta Falcons. I don't think Schwartz was frustrated as much as he was angry and unwilling to accept defeat. (I'm thinking Schwartz also didn't like the fact Harbaugh got to celebrate the way he usually does, but I'm done with that topic for now.)
Through these past 312 days, the Lions "haven't known what it's like to lose," Raiola said. That's a good thing. The Lions got a taste of it Sunday against a really good team and didn't like it one bit. And it wasn't just Schwartz. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril got into it via Twitter with 49ers offensive lineman Anthony Davis, who has since deleted his share of the back-and-forth.
With that said, the Lions will have to address some important football issues this week. At the top of the list is figuring out an answer to the kind of athletic front seven the 49ers presented. For the most part, the 49ers played tight coverage on short-and-intermediate routes and get away with it. The Lions didn't beat them for the kind of big plays that catapulted them for to the 5-0 start.
"We were just behind the sticks today," Stafford said. "We didn't do enough as an offense to make them pay."
But none of the Lions' issues Sunday seemed permanent nor debilitating. They still have an offense that can be explosive and a defense that makes its share of big plays. The only conclusion we can draw, as Schwartz said, is the Lions "are not going to go 16-0."
Schwartz let his emotions get the best of him Sunday, but his team appears built with the appropriate levels of passion and realism to take what it learned over the past 312 days and continue on the right path.
"You can't be too disappointed when you're playing against one of the best defenses in the league," Burleson said. "Obviously our expectations are higher for ourselves. … Today was more or less two very competitive teams and a lot of adrenaline in the air."
It might sound trite, but it's true: You win some, and by rule you're going to lose some, too. The Lions' displeasure with Sunday's result suggests they're in for more of the former and less of the latter.