CINCINNATI -- It was a game the Detroit Lions had to win to stay alive in the postseason. A game that Detroit -- if it had really wanted to show it was a good team this season -- should have won against a Cincinnati team headed nowhere but home after next weekend.
Instead, the Lions ensured they’ll be heading home after New Year’s Eve, too, after a 26-17 loss to the Bengals, a loss that borders on inexplicable for a team that had postseason aspirations hours earlier. The Bengals had been blown out by Minnesota and Chicago the past two weeks. If the Lions wanted to be a team in the postseason, this should have been a game in which the Lions matched their NFC North rivals.
You want to be a playoff team? You want to show progress? You win games like Sunday's, with an opponent's stadium half-full and a decent amount of the crowd wearing Detroit Lions colors. Good teams do this. Playoff teams do this.
This team? It isn’t a good team. It isn’t a playoff team, either. The Lions looked closer to the playing-out-the-string Bengals than any of the teams that are going to be playing in January.
"We were struggling today. That’s the fact of the matter," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "They did a better job controlling the line of scrimmage on us. They ran the ball well. We had a couple sparks in there, here and there, but we just were not sharp in any way, shape or form. We had a few plays here and there, but they played better."
Why that happened in a game of such critical importance leads to all the more questions. How does general manager Bob Quinn view what head coach Jim Caldwell has done? Does he believe there is still progress being made? Is Caldwell still the coach he wants to lead his franchise, or is he going to look elsewhere? After Sunday's loss, both team owner Martha Ford and team president Rod Wood declined to comment about Caldwell's future with the franchise.
Those are the things that will be wondered now with the Lions out of the playoffs. And it came on a day when everything else Detroit needed to have happen to stay in realistic postseason contention happened. The Saints beat the Falcons. Had the Lions beaten the Bengals, that would have given Detroit a better chance at the playoffs. It would have given Week 17 against Green Bay meaning.
Doesn’t matter now. The Lions didn’t win.
Good teams would make sure they were in the position the Lions were in. Even if everything they had done to that point had made it difficult, they would get to Week 17 with a chance. The Lions definitively were not a good team Sunday -- and showed against the Bengals that they were no better than a mediocre team all season.
This had been a team that always believed in itself in the fourth quarter, that thrived when the pressure was on. Caldwell even hinted that was the makeup of his team. Yet with the entire season on the line, the Lions faltered offensively -- with holding and false-start calls on Don Barclay on Detroit’s penultimate offensive possession. On defense, the Lions couldn’t stop Cincinnati, allowing Gio Bernard to run in a game-clinching touchdown.
Those two drives aren’t why the Lions lost Sunday, but they do explain what Detroit’s issue was. It couldn’t make the big stop or the big play for so much of the day. Sure, there were pieces here and there -- a Quandre Diggs interception and one well-run drive in the fourth quarter -- but otherwise, the Lions looked average and maybe worse than that. And it’ll send the Lions into a Week 17 game against Green Bay that has no meaning instead of potentially being for a spot in the postseason.
"Had we won, we're still in it," receiver Marvin Jones said. "We lost, so we're out, and that's tough. We need to come with it for the next game and play lights-out. We laid an egg out there today, and we have to come back."
Detroit looked like a team that was playing down to the level of the Bengals and hoping to do what it always does: keep it close and pull it out in the end.
It has been a danger against good teams. Doing it against a bad team -- and then not being able to come through -- shows a lack of progress under head coach Jim Caldwell.
There has always been a concern about the way Caldwell’s teams played. Occasionally, like they did to Green Bay and the New York Giants earlier this season, the Lions were in control the entire way. But too often -- far too often against teams below-.500 this season and even last season -- they hung around with those teams until the end.
They relied on fourth-quarter comebacks from Matthew Stafford and timely turnovers from Glover Quin and Darius Slay. They would look like a different team in the final quarter. Caldwell appeared fine with that, going as far as to call it a trademark of his teams in Detroit. They were pleased they would never give up.
But that they would not be able to soundly put away teams they should have this season was the problem in the first place.
It was more than this, though. The same problems the Lions have always had persisted. They scored only seven points in the first half. Their run game -- against the worst rushing defense in the league -- was abysmal, with no running back topping 50 yards and the team gaining 87 yards as a whole. The offense remained predictable, particularly early with some of Jim Bob Cooter's play calls.
Jones said it came down to "execution," a refrain similar to other times the Lions struggled this season.
"It just wasn’t good. It just wasn’t good execution," Jones said. "That’s just what it is. There’s definitely a lot of times where we could have got out with some points and we didn’t. You know, it is what it is. Obviously, we don’t want it to be like that. It happened. They made more plays than we did. They controlled the game, and we didn’t do a good job of doing that."
Who is to blame for that? Jones said it's on everyone -- something linebacker Tahir Whitehead agreed with.
Those same issues cost the Lions on Sunday. It cost them the rest of their season. Cost them a chance at the postseason. And, depending on what Quinn decides to do after the year, might have cost Caldwell and his staff their jobs.