The Detroit Lions are better than their record indicates.
They're 2-10 on paper, last in the NFC North. But if you look at how many close games this team has lost, you almost wonder if we could be talking about playoffs right now instead of draft picks.
The Lions lost by eight to the Giants, three to the Jets, two to the Packers and Bills. They even led the Patriots, who just thumped the Jets by 42, for a good portion of the Thanksgiving game. It's not an issue of talent anymore; the Lions have some. It's finishing a game that's the problem now.
Despite playing third-stringer Drew Stanton at quarterback on Sunday, the Lions had a chance to topple the NFC North's top team. But as has been the case so many times before with this team, something inexplicable happened to the Lions that directly led to a loss. The "Lions moment" struck again.
What is a "Lions moment" you might ask? It's that moment in a Lions game that turns things completely around. It happens nearly every week, and it can only happen to this team.
On Sunday that moment occurred with Detroit leading 20-17 in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler scrambled for an eight-yard gain, at the end of which he was pushed in the back by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The hit looked violent at first glance, but it was seemingly a perfectly legal hit.
Referee Ed Hochuli thought otherwise.
Hochuli threw a flag for an "unnecessary non-football act," more specifically a blow to the head from behind.
The penalty was not merely called because Cutler is a QB, Hochuli said. "In that situation it was, I felt, an unnecessary blow, a non-football act as the runner was going to the ground."
The penalty gave the Bears a first down at the Lions seven-yard line. On the next play, the Bears punched in the go-ahead touchdown. The Lions didn't threaten again.
Every video replay clearly showed that Suh did not come in contact with the head, but rather the shoulder pads. Cutler was still running and not trying to slide, so by rule he was still fair game even though he is a quarterback. What was Suh supposed to do, ask to hold his hand as he gently laid him on the ground? Bears GM Jerry Angelo seems to think so.
The NFL's crusade against unnecessary violence and hits to the head is admirable. But since when is pushing a guy to the ground from behind illegal? Suh's hit was legal in two-hand touch.
The penalty itself was not the sole reason the Lions lost, but it sure as hell didn't help. It's just the way it is for this team. "The Process" rule in week one. The missed extra point, kicked by Suh, in the Jets game. The two-point conversion against Buffalo that sailed through the end zone. It's always something.
The Lions must have pissed off the football gods really good to have this kind of luck. Maybe they still haven't forgiven the team for its losing culture that forced Barry Sanders out of football in his prime. Sound crazy? Find me a logical explanation for these shenanigans and I'll gladly listen.
Ten years later, that losing culture is still here. For some reason this team can't shake it. Head coach Jim Schwartz is trying his best. You can see it in that blood vessel in his head that almost pops when the Lions do something stupid. But there's over 60 years of losing to shake off; it won't go away in a day or two.
And ridding the franchise of that losing culture doesn't stop with the players. The fans have to go through the process too. Even with the Lions leading for a good chunk of Sunday's contest, it's a solid bet that most Lions fans had the thought cross their minds at some point that it wouldn't last. The Lions would get some dumb penalty or blow a coverage assignment to mess this up. It's okay if you did. I was one of those fans.
After all Lions fans have witnessed this season, you can't really blame them if they did have those thoughts. It's not Suh's fault he put a perfectly legal hit on a player and got flagged for it. It's not Calvin Johnson's fault that he caught a game-winning touchdown that was wrongly taken away. It's not Matthew Stafford's fault that he's been relegated to street clothes in his first two NFL seasons.
That is just pure, bad luck. Right now, fans must be wondering if that luck is ever going to turn their way.