Sunday, January 08, 2012

And So It Was Not To Be

A few hours ago, we Detroit Lions fans were able to rejoin in an annual tradition known as the NFL Playoffs for the first time in a dozen years. And in just a little over three hours, we sat back and watched as our hopes for Super Bowl promise come to an unhappy ending with a 45-28 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.

I could be saddened, and maybe I should be, but I won't. There's a common perception in the NFL that we make predictions that establish our expectations for the season prior to the opening kickoff. Then, just as the season progresses, our expectations change depending on the team's performance. We Lions fans were no different than anybody, but looking back on the season, I can honestly, my expectations were satisfied.

Prior to the season, based on how Lions' GM Martin Mayhew had been making personnel decisions, I expected this team to have a legitimate shot at breaking the 10-win barrier and making a serious playoff run. Both expectations were satisfied. What I did not expect was for this team to make a serious run deep into the playoffs. Tonight's loss was not what I would call "satisfying," but it did reinforce what I had strongly believed all along: this team is good, but not yet great.

The game started with the Lions receiving the ball first, and quarterback Matthew Stafford taking the team in a flawlessly executed offensive drive that lasted eight plays and went eighty yards for a touchdown. For the first half, the Lions held their own and went into halftime with a 14-10 lead. They were actually making a game of it.

But the second half came, and Saints' quarterback Drew Brees led his team to its first lead of the game with a touchdown after only a 1:30 in the third quarter. Brees effectively took over, and the Lions' defense could not respond. Two straight scores gave the Saints a ten point lead before Stafford and Lions answered with another touchdown by Stafford running the ball on a bootleg, putting the Lions to within three.

However, Brees was able to not only manage a small lead, but keep the ball on multiple fourth down conversions (they never used the punter in the game). The Saints scored twice again, going ahead 38-21 before Stafford responded with a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson with less than half the fourth quarter remaining. The Saints put up one more touchdown after a Stafford interception, taking a 45-28 lead. With their last chance, Stafford threw a second pick to Jabari Greer, who had intercepted him minutes earlier. That was Greer's second of the game; he only had one pick all year. Just to show the team's dominance, the Saints managed to take the ball all the way to the Lions' goal line, but decided to kill the clock in a victory formation rather than pile on.

It was pretty obvious by the end of the third quarter that we would not be seeing another week of Lions football. Sure, it's depressing to see your team lose. But putting it all in context, what we Lions fans have been through in over a decade, our sadness is fleeting.

We are no longer the laughingstock of the NFL. Detroit now has a legitimate NFL team again. And unlike the 1990s, this team will not have a string of disappointing, underachieving W-L records, like going 9-7 because we beat Super Bowl contenders like Dallas and San Francisco, but lost to teams like Tampa Bay (the pre-1997 Buccaneers were gawdawful for years).

Around this time in year's past, I was always looking forward to the draft. In 2012, I'll still get excited by it. But now I know we're not drafting for franchise players. We're drafting for need.

Like, a secondary perhaps? Maybe an interior offensive lineman? Maybe even look to replace a few players who are getting long in the tooth, like Kyle Vanden Bosch or Jeff Backus.

Supposedly, this draft is pretty light on corners. But I don't care. I'm all smiles for the next eight to ten years. Sure, there will be setbacks from time to time.

But you know what? I bet, Matthew Stafford will do something for this franchise, this city, and this state that no one's been able to do in the Super Bowl era - bring home the Lombardi Trophy. That I firmly believe.

So, I'm disappointed with last night's result. But I'm not distraught. Next year, my anticipation will grow, as will the rest of Detroit's.

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