Friday, November 23, 2007

Answering the Detroit Lions' NFL week 12 "Burning questions"

Though the Lions lost 4 days ago (Seems longer, doesn't it?), I decided against doing the burning questions bit over the weekend. I needed to take a break from writing for a few days, and more importantly, I wanted to see how the Sunday games would affect the Lions' playoff chances.

Amazingly, the Lions, yes, the Detroit Lions, actually caught a break. Every team the Lions are competing with for a wild card berth, all teams that they would lose a tie breaker with, lost.

Giants were outright embarrassed by the Vikings.

The Redskins were knocked off by the Bucs, despite Jeff Garcia being knocked out of the game during the first series.

Arizona's Neil Rackers missed a gimmie OT field goal against the 49er's, in what ended up as an ugly Cardinals loss.

The Eagles played tough, but ultimately couldn't stop the juggernaut that is the Patriots.

So despite how bleak things looked Thursday night, and they were damn bleak, on Monday morning the Lions STILL held the final NFC wild card berth. How long they stay in that position is now the question...

Now that we have a better idea of the NFC wild card situation, it's time to answer Detroit News beat writer Mike O'Hara's Burning questions. Topics include the play of Jon Kitna, the sudden use of Calvin Johnson as a receiver, rather than a decoy, the O-line play, and the Lions playoff chances.

Ready. Set. Answer!

Burning questions from the Lions' 37-26 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on Thursday:

Q: Assess the Lions' playoff chances.

O'Hara: Mathematically, they're still in the race at 6-5 with five games left. It's hard to give them much of a chance. Their weaknesses are being exposed by good teams, and they don't have enough strengths to lean on to beat good teams.

Big Al: Though the Lions caught a HUGE break with the losses of the other wild card contenders, the Lions will end up being on the outside, looking in, when the playoffs start. They have too tough of a remaining schedule, the offense is shooting blanks, Jon Kitna is channeling Stoney Case, Mike Martz seems intent on proving his supposed genius, than calling a competent game, and the defensive backfield is exposed when playing any QB you'd consider better than average.

Even the most optimistic fan sees the Lions winning only 3 of their 5 remaining games. Realists have accepted that 2 wins is the best possible scenario, and they could easily go 0-5, ending the season on an 8 game losing streak.

Yes, Detroit could finish 4-1, and reach the 10 win mark. But when factoring in the fact that the Lions would lose every wild card tiebreaker with teams out of the NFC north, that the Bears and Vikings are slowly working their way back into the wild card scenario, throwing a wrench into the playoff works, and the undeniable fact that they are the Lions, a fast finish that leads to a playoff spot is a long shot.

Q: What hurt them most against the Packers?

O'Hara: Start with Brett Favre, but you can say that about almost any team. The man is a marvel. I hope he plays forever. It looked like he was finished two years ago and again last year, but he's playing great football again. He's accurate, with a strong arm, and he knows how to win.

The bigger the moment, the better he plays.

Big Al: Good Lord, more Favre love... I won't deny that he was excellent against the Lions, and a big reason the Pack won.

It comes down to this. When the Lions don't generate a pass rush, their back 7 gets exposed for what they are, a patchwork of below average players. (Ernie Sims being the only exception). A hall of fame QB like Favre had to be licking his chops when watching the Lions on film. I'd guess every QB in the NFL feels the same way. Keep the Detroit pass rush at bay, and any decent QB will pick the Lions defense apart.

Q: How is that different than how Jon Kitna and the Lions play?

O'Hara: Favre versus Kitna isn't a fair comparison. Of course Favre is better. But he plays with a joy only a few special athletes have. They know they're great, they're used to winning, and they enjoy the experience.

There were times during the game when you saw Favre laughing and joking -- to his teammates and to the Lions. On a play when he drew the Lions offside, Favre kidded Kalimba Edwards -- who wasn't the lineman who jumped -- about the play.

The Lions worry their way through games. Everything's a test, an experience, because they aren't used to winning. And right now, they're flunking the test.

Big Al: Come on... Enough of the Brett Favre is having fun on the field BS. It's taken right from the John Madden "I love Brett" handbook. Was he quite so joyful the past couple of seasons when the Packers were awful? Hardly.

The Packers are a better team, on the field, and in the front office, than the Lions. Period. That they have a hall of fame QB is just icing on the NFC Central cake. I also like the chances that the Packers will remain competitive for the next couple of seasons. I'm not yet convinced that the Lions are on the same upswing as the Pack. Any team with Matt Millen running the front office...Well, Nothing more needs to be said.

I agree that the Lions are not near as freewheeling as the Pack, and that's including the loose cannon that is Mike Martz running the offense. In fact, that offense may be a reason why Detroit looks tight. There's no audiblizing, the players are still learning the nuances and options of Martz's difficult to master offense, and one mistake can lead to a turnover or missed opportunity. Just look back to Roy Williams moaning that his blowing assignments cost him a 300 yard receiving game, for another example...

We can never forget that we are talking about the Detroit Lions, a team that has had a black cloud hanging over it for 5 decades. They expect the worst to happen, because it always has...

Q: Calvin Johnson had a bad first half. He had two outright drops and a third that he could have caught. What happened?

O'Hara: It looked like the pressure of playing on national TV on Thanksgiving Day with a lot on the line got to him. But he wasn't the only one who had a bad game.

Big Al: I tend to write the drops off as rookie mistakes, a part of the learning process that every NFL wide out has to go through.

This is first time we've seen Johnson as the focal point of the offense, and he just didn't make plays. Maybe it was the pressure, maybe it was just a bad game. I doubt it will be a trend. He's too good to continue to make such glaring mistakes. Hell, Roy Williams still drops too many balls, and he's a pro bowl receiver. I'm not going to get bent out of shape over one disappointing effort from Johnson.

The kid had played well in limited opportunities and made plays, till this past week. He'll be fine.

Q: What about Kitna? He was sacked four times.

O'Hara: He has had to live with pressure for two years, but he could have reacted better. He took a sack on third-and-20 on the first possession. The Lions still got a field goal. Another sack in the first quarter on third-and-3 at the Packers 32 put the Lions out of field-goal range.

Kitna has to feel pressure better. There are times to hold the ball and take a sack. But those were bad times for sacks.

Big Al: Kitna did not play well at all. Actually, he hasn't played well during the 3 game skid. On Thursday, Kitna forced passes, held on to the ball much too long, lacked his normal pocket presence, and just plain tried to do too much. He's not Brett Favre. Kitna needs to stay within himself. When he freelances too much, and attempts make plays that aren't there, that's when the turnovers and sacks happen.

Kitna has to play better, but is he capable of doing so? He's a leader, but when it comes to talent? He's an average QB, and that will only take you so far...

Not that the offensive line has been any great shakes. They deserve plenty of blame. Over the past 3 games, Kitna has spent more time running for his life, than running the offense, thanks to the leaky O-line.

Q: Dominic Raiola got a chop-block penalty in the first quarter that wiped out a pass completion inside the 1-yard line. How damaging was that?

O'Hara: It didn't lose the game, but it didn't help. There was no need for it. Raiola dove at the legs of a Packers lineman who was being blocked. There was no need for it.

Big Al: The penalty didn't lose the game, but chop block was just a dumb, dumb, dumb play by Raiola. When you are at center, what are the odds that the defensive lineman whose legs you dove at is engaged with a guard or tackle? 99.9%? 99.95%?

Typical Lions mistake. The sort that Rod Marinelli continually preaches against, and has to eat up inside when they happen. Usually at the most inopportune time...

Q: Where did the Lions get hurt most on defense?

O'Hara: Again, it goes back to Favre. The Packers liked the matchups in their five-receiver formation. They felt they could beat the Lions' secondary, and they did.

Favre got the ball away in a hurry on a lot of throws to complete 31 of 41 passes. There were other times when he dropped the ball between defenders for completions. I'm not sure any secondary would have beaten Favre, but the Lions sure couldn't.

Big Al: Where do you start? They couldn't stop the run or pass. The Lions defense gave up 100+ yards rushing to a nobody, Ryan Grant. Favre was completing passes at will. Christ, he completed 20 straight at one point. When the Packers needed to run clock, and get a late score, they were able to so with little resistance from the Lions defense. They aren't helped by the Detroit offense, and their recent inability to stay on the field.

But it's simple, really. When the Lions defense doesn't generate turnovers, they lose. Live by the turnover, die by the turnover. Over the last 3 games, the Lions have died...

Q: Point blank -- will the Lions make the playoffs?

O'Hara: I'd bet against it now. I didn't see the collapse coming, and there are too many teams with the tiebreaker advantage.

It's time to talk about the draft. Ugh. What an awful thought.

Big Al: No. Next question. Oh, there aren't any more? Then I'll elaborate..

The majority of the NFC is still in playoff contention. But if the season ended today, the Lions are in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the season does not end today, and they are far from being in good shape. This past weekend was more of a temporary stay of execution. It just delays the inevitable.

I said it after the Thanksgving game, if the Lions miss the playoffs, and it currently isn't looking good, this season will be considered an epic fail. You can't miss the playoffs after a 6-2 start. You just can't. That's why the Lions will miss the playoffs. They're the Lions.

And let's not talk about the draft. You know they are going to screw that up...again. It being the Lions, missing the playoffs, screwing up drafts, and crushing the hopes of their fans, is what they do.

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