Mike: Not much in terms of anybody outside the organization. The playoffs are gone. But from a team standpoint, Sunday night’s game at Green Bay should have some inspiration.
The Lions haven’t won a road game against the Packers since 1991, when they won at Lambeau in Game 15 to clinch a playoff berth. Since then, they’ve lost 21 straight on the road to the Packers – 20 in the regular season, one in the 1994 playoffs. Getting that hex off their backs would mean something.
So would ending a four-game losing streak.
In this situation, you look for anything that provides extra motivation. It’s not what you wanted at the start of the season, but it’s what you have now.
Tim: Of the four games the Lions have left, two are at home (Falcons and Bears), two are on national television (Packers and Falcons) and two are against NFC North rivals (Packers and Bears). That should be enough motivation.
There’s also that thing about being a professional and doing your job, too.
Some players – and potentially some coaches – are on a four-game audition. You don’t go through a season like this, after so many expectations, without at least the roster going through some kind of metamorphosis this offseason. The Lions have some decisions to make with some free-agent starters and these next four games will go a long way to making some of those decisions. That's pretty good motivation
Where do the Lions need to start improving this offseason if they’re going to get back on track?
Mike: The entire team's psyche has been fractured, but that gets repaired by winning. When you look at the number of players and combinations of players who have started games at cornerback and safety, it leaves no doubt as to where the biggest trouble spot is. Whether it's having
A lot of other decisions will be made in free agency based on money and the salary cap, but the plan has to start with the immediate and biggest need.
Tim: Secondary. No question. The Lions have gotten by with patchwork, one-year fixes to compliment Chris Houston and Louis Delmas so far. They drafted some young talent this past draft with mixed results. The Lions need to get better in the secondary this offseason, first via free agency, preferably with a three- or four-year veteran with starting experience and a resume of playmaking ability. If that can happen under the salary cap, the draft is again the next option and I'd start at safety.
I get the whole philosophy of best available player in the draft, but it has to be the best available in three positions that you designate as an organization as a need if your going to see immediate improvement. To me, that’s safety, defensive end or cornerback.
The secondary hasn’t been able to make a play late in games the last three weeks. That’s just the simple truth. The Lions need to get better and healthier there.
What's the one core issue that turned the Lions from a playoff team to a team on the outside of the playoff chase looking in?
Mike: They came up short in the clutch -- in key game-clinching situations on offense, where they misfired on a play or two, but even more on the defense. Time after time, they gave up long TD drives that sealed losses or let teams come back and win. More than anything -- including the special-teams coverage breakdowns in consecutive losses to the Titans and Vikings -- the repeated failure of the defense to protect leads late in games destroyed this season.
Play-calling on offense is easy to criticize, and I've done my share of it. But on the whole, the defense should carry the greater burden.
Tim: The defense has certainly played a role but entering the season, wasn’t that to be expected a little bit? The salary cap prohibits teams from truly being good in all areas, and we all knew there were going to be times when the secondary and the back seven struggled this year.
I think we all thought the offense would be able to pick up the slack, build on what they did last year and be even better this year.
Just before the defense has given up a game-winning or game-tying score late in the last three games, the offense has had a chance to put the game away and has failed to do so three straight weeks. That, to me, has been the more egregious mistake. What was supposed to be the strength of this team has let the Lions down late in games when they’ve had a chance to ice it without their defense even stepping on the field at the end of a game.
I might have expected some lapses from the defense, but not as many from the offense.
What is there to be excited about heading into next year?
Mike: It's still the NFL, and it's still dramatic on game day in the stadium. The Lions have
It isn't like last year, clinching a playoff berth on Christmas Eve against the Chargers and making Ford Field feel like an giant office party.
In short, the finish isn't what anyone hoped for -- or expected. But it's what we got.
Tim: I think people will rally around Johnson’s pursuit of the record. He’s been the one bright light for the Lions all season and there couldn't be a more deserving person to have it. That's bee fun if it comes down to Week 17. Everyone on the edge of their seat for every catch. The cheers after every catch.
The Lions walked around the stadium and slapped hands with the fans after clinching a playoff berth against the Chargers last year. It wouldn't be the same, but Johnson being recognized by the fans for an individual accomplishment will do.
The Lions are on national television and could potentially play spoiler to the Bears playoff chances in Week 17, too – that’s always fun.
As far as next year goes, I think people can take solace in the fact that the core pieces on this team are young and productive (Stafford, Johnson, Suh, Fairley, Tulloch, ect…). The Lions just need to get a few more pieces signed long-term to join that group (especially Chris Houston) and then get a few more complimentary pieces with some more talent.
It may seem like the Lions are a ways off with a 4-8 record, but they’ve lost seven games by one score. They are a few plays and a few players away from 8-4.