Lions blow comeback opportunities; Wolverines take last-minute victory

In sports, and in life, things sometimes come down to simply having a chance to succeed. Not even taking that chance, just having it. Because if you are taken out of ever having a chance to win, there’s no hope.

This weekend, the two major games in our area came down to having a prayer’s chance at the end of the game. For one team, that tiny opportunity ended in victory. And for the other, lazy play deprived them of even the chance at making a comeback.

The Detroit Lions lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-24. Detroit fell to 4-5, and fell further back in the quest for a playoff berth.

One day earlier, the Michigan Wolverines beat the Northwestern Wildcats, 38-31. Michigan went to 7-3, and kept hope alive for a Big Ten division title and all that comes with it.

But those scores only tell of the day’s final result. The journey there was the interesting part.

Wolverines comeback

In Ann Arbor, Northwestern took the lead, 31-28, with 3:59 to go in the 4th quarter. The Wildcats drove down the field, got some favorable penalty calls, and scored on a 15-yard touchdown. Michigan would get the ball back with just under 4 minutes to play, with backup quarterback Devin Gardner in his first start at Michigan Stadium.

On the first play from scrimmage, on a deep bomb to tight end Devin Funchess, Northwestern safety Demetrius Dugar jumped past Funchess and intercepted the ball. Wildcats ball. And some started to leave the Big House.

Michigan had to then stop Northwestern, to even get the ball back at all, for any chance of victory. With almost everything coming down to 4th-down and 1, after Michigan used three timeouts to stop the clock, Northwestern snuck through with a favorable spot. Wildcats ball again, and more people left, as the clock ticked down. On the next set of plays, Michigan finally got that stop, moving Northwestern back for four yards. Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon received the punt, and took it back to Michigan’s 38-yard line.

Michigan now had the smallest of chances, with 18 seconds to go. Gardner threw up a Hail Mary bomb to the other end of the field, and senior WR Roy Roundtree jumped up with some defenders, tipped the ball in the air, and caught it as both man and ball fell to the turf. A quick spike to stop the clock led to the game-tying field goal as time expired. 31-31, in the most unlikely of ways.

At this point, a fired up Michigan team easily scored with a Devin Gardner rushing touchdown, and stopped Northwestern on four plays for a 38-31 win. Michigan won and stays alive in the conference championship hunt.

All of that would have gone away if Michigan had given up at any point, from earlier in the game, to the late interception, to any of those defensive plays. That will to win opened the door for a victory. And, it actually worked, despite the long odds of that situation.

No Lions comeback

The next day would be a different story.

In the first quarter, the Vikings scored twice, on a 10-0 lead that would never really be lost. Every Lions score was followed up by a Vikings response. The closest Detroit would come was 16-10, on a Stafford to Pettigrew touchdown, coming late in the 3rd quarter. Minnesota scored on their next possession, and both teams swapped TD’s from that point on.

The simple summation of the game is that Minnesota took the lead early and never gave it up. But there is more to the story than that.

Detroit was 1-9 on 3rd downs. That lone 3rd-down conversion came when Detroit last had the ball, down by three possessions (17 points, one more than two touchdowns plus two-point conversions), in the last four minutes of the game. By the time Detroit converted on 3rd down, it was too late for anything.

All throughout the game, the Lions had chances to take the lead, or to start mounting a comeback. Instead, the Lions went three-and-out, giving the ball back to Minnesota. Those were the times where Detroit needed to step up.

Or, it was later in the game, once the Lions started to score. Detroit would score, and needed a defensive stand to get a game-tying opportunity. And each time, Minnesota would go right through the Lions’ defense and score, putting the game back out of reach. Eventually, time officially ran out, catching up to the Vikings’ game-sealing touchdowns.

The Lions never had a chance at the end of the game to come back. They played too poorly to get one.

The Lions future

It’s not just Sunday’s chance that the Lions are playing their way out of, with sloppy play. It’s the chance for something special in 2012.

Right now, the Lions are 4-5, one game below .500 and one game past the halfway point of the season. Detroit is in last place within the NFC North, three games back of 7-2 Chicago, two games back of 6-3 Green Bay, and a game and a half back of 6-4 Minnesota. In the NFC, Detroit is tied for 9th place, in a four-way tie. They are a game and a half back of the last wild-card spot, behind two 6-4 teams (Minnesota and Seattle) and 5-4 Tampa Bay.

On average, it takes around 10 wins to make the playoffs in the NFL. Since 2000, the last playoff spot has gone to a 10-6 team on eleven occasions, exactly half the time. (Last year, the Lions made the playoffs with a 10-6 record.)

At 4-5, the Lions basically have one more game that they can possibly lose, or possibly two. Anything else could knock them out.

The obvious problem with this is that Detroit’s schedule is now reaching the toughest point. Every single Lions game is against an opponent with a better record, or the same record. The lone game against another 4-5 team is on the road, at Arizona. Every other week is against a team currently in the playoffs.

And with all of that, Detroit has to pretty much run the table.

Sadly, the Lions should not be in this situation. In Week 3, against Tennessee, the Lions wasted a last-play miracle by fumbling on 4th down in overtime. In Week 4, against Minnesota, Detroit gave up two kick-return touchdowns and lost by 6. In Week 7, on Monday Night Football, the Lions lost by 6 in a game where Detroit could not score a single touchdown. Those three losses were given away with stupid mistakes, bad playcalling, and a lingering sense of contentment.

Without those three losses, the Lions would be at the top of the NFC. Without two of those, the Lions would be comfortably in the playoff hunt. Without just one of those, the Lions would be right in the thick of things.

And after all of that, with all the criticism that came with it, the Lions wasted another game and added a fourth dubious loss to the season. Quite simply, this 4-5 record could be 8-1, or 7-2, or 6-3, with some discipline.

Of course, things could still turn around. Five of the last seven games are at Ford Field. The offense has played horrendously so far, and improvement there can put the Lions over the top. And, as the Lions would rise in the standings with victories, Detroit would be tacking their opponents with losses, directly gaining games with each win.

Detroit plays Green Bay twice, starting this week. If the Lions win both of those games, Detroit makes up those two games that they are behind.

Detroit ends the season with a home game against Chicago. In the meantime, the Bears lost to the Houston Texans last night. The Lions play the Texans on Thanksgiving, and a holiday victory would virtually gain a game in the standings there.

Anything can happen. The opportunity, as slight as it is, is still there for Detroit to seize.

Which brings us all back to this weekend. Michigan, like the Lions, is barely in a championship chase, barely in Saturday’s game. But when the very last opportunity came, Michigan took advantage of it. On Sunday, the Lions had the same circumstances, and choked it away.

The last chance, the very last chance, comes this weekend for the Detroit Lions. Either way, it’s finally time to see what these Lions are made of.

Gordie Fall

Gordon Fall has been around the Detroit sports scene for his entire life and even entered the world with a Red Wings hockey stick in hand. With a variety of connections around the Detroit area, Fall will be presenting the unspoken, yet optimistic truth of our city’s sports scene.

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