Looking at Lions' troubling fourth-quarter trend under Matt Patricia

DETROIT -- Perhaps it wouldn’t feel so foreboding if it didn’t all feel so familiar. The lead. The hope. The promise. The comeback. The fall. The loss.

It’s been a theme of Matt Patricia’s tenure with the Detroit Lions. Build a lead. Stoke some excitement. See some potential. Then, through the means of a missed field goal or made field goal, of a dropped touchdown or an improbable comeback or even an unexpected illegal hands to the face call, it ends up being lost.

Patricia’s teams have led in the fourth quarter in 20 of the 33 games he’s coached with the Lions. That, on the surface, would seem like a good thing. A positive trend. Something that can be built on as the third-year coach continues to try to construct the program he wants.

Except there’s a flaw.

In 11 of those games, the Lions have lost the lead. Ten of them -- all except the season-opening tie last year against Arizona -- became losses. It has happened in ways that are commonplace in the NFL, with one-point leads being flipped. There have been complete collapses, too, like dropping a 17-point lead against Chicago on Sunday and an 18-point lead against Arizona last season.

Since Patricia took over Detroit, the 11 lost fourth-quarter leads leading to losses or ties is the worst in the league. Next closest, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, is Pittsburgh, with seven.

Patricia, after Sunday’s defeat, said he doesn’t believe his coaching is causing the Lions' failure to close out games. Instead, he pointed to one of the biggest plays in NFL history -- Malcolm Butler’s end-zone interception of Russell Wilson to win Super Bowl XLIX -- as the reason he’s not to blame.

That was one play. A half-decade ago.

“I’ve got one of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter in the history of the NFL where I think I did a pretty good job,” Patricia said. “So I don’t think it’s that. I think we all know what the individual games are.

“We have to do a better job. I mean, we got a team now that’s different than the previous two years. This team is different. They are different players and they have a different mindset.”

But many of the players still have the reality of the past to overcome. Detroit’s past three games have all been fall-from-ahead losses. The Lions held a seven-point lead against Green Bay midway through the fourth quarter in the 2019 season finale. Then Aaron Rodgers connected with Allen Lazard for a tying touchdown. And Mason Crosby made a 33-yard field goal at the horn to win the game -- the second time in 2019 he did that to the Lions.

The week before, in Denver, Detroit had a 17-13 lead entering the fourth quarter. Touchdowns by DaeSean Hamilton and Phillip Lindsay gave the Broncos a 27-17 win.

It might be a different season, but the results were all too similar in Week 1.

It’s not as though there’s been fluctuation, either, where Detroit has been able to pull out games in similar fashion. In Patricia’s nine wins as Detroit’s coach, only one -- against the Chargers last season -- was a come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter, when Matthew Stafford found Kenny Golladay to give the Lions a 13-10 lead.

It’s hard to reconcile, too, because in his career Stafford has been one of the better fourth-quarter quarterbacks in NFL history. He has led 28 fourth-quarter comebacks, tied with Brett Favre for No. 11 all time. Among active quarterbacks, only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan rank higher.

In finding ways to combat the fourth-quarter problem, Patricia said Monday the Lions have discussed plays that happened in the first three quarters that could have helped to avoid the final-quarter situations they’ve been in “and not leave that door open in the end.”

“You don’t want to be those situations at the end of the game,” Patricia said. “You want to try and do everything possible before that to handle that so you’re not in those situations.”

In some ways, the fourth-quarter futility has shown how close the Lions are. A missed field goal here, a dropped touchdown pass there. It illustrates how thin the line is between good and average. Between average and poor. But that’s where the Lions are now.

Their next two opponents -- Green Bay and Arizona -- were both come-from-behind culprits for Detroit a season ago. They each have one of the top wide receivers in the league (Davante Adams with Green Bay, DeAndre Hopkins with Arizona) and a dynamic quarterback (the Packers’ Rodgers and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray). Both teams have no problem scoring and scoring quickly.

Maybe the Lions are able to figure it out. It’s one game into what is a long season. But based on history, with Detroit, no lead -- even a three-possession one -- is comforting.

“It’s something that we’re working on,” receiver Danny Amendola said. “It’s something that is apparent. It’s clear. It’s clear to us, it was clear to us last year, it’s clear to the group. It’s a work in progress.

“We’re working hard, and we can’t afford to lose games. We know that. This league is a league of parity. Every game comes down to the wire no matter what, really. A play here, a play there at the end and it’s a different feeling.”

Except in Detroit, where the feeling has often been the same -- close, but not good enough.

Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this story.