In front of a national-television audience on Sunday night at New Orleans, the Lions once showed their vast potential. They outgained the Saints 466-438 and trailed by just a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. QB Matthew Stafford, in a sparkling performance, completed 31-of-44 passes for 408 yards.
However, the day after a 31-17 loss to the Saints, the story is not Detroit's fine effort against one of the NFL's powers, despite being shorthanded on defense, but rather the Lions' lack of discipline and excess of mistakes. Detroit committed 11 penalties for 107 yards in defeat. The Lions committed two unsportsmanlike-conduct fouls and one unnecessary-roughness penalty. The unnecessary-roughness penalty on rookie WR Titus Young was particularly damaging, as it pushed Detroit out of field-goal range.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said Monday that he met with the team's captains on the airplane ride back to Detroit and had spoken multiple times to the club about the personal-foul penalities.
Asked about what his role was, relative to making sure his club played in a more disciplined manner, Schwartz said: "Obviously everything on the field is a reflection of the organization. It's a reflection of the head coach, it's a reflection of all the coaches and reflections of the players. That's not a presentation we want. It's something that puts the team in a bad position. Selfish play won't be tolerated."
Of penalties, Schwartz said: "There are two kinds of penalties that we need to get off our radar, and that's before the snap and after the whistle."
On pre-snap penaties, Schwartz noted that the club had cut down on those this season. Of the post-snap penalties, he said: "Obviously the last two weeks, we haven't done a very good job with that, and it's been situations that have put the team in a bad position.
"There's stuff that is part of the play. I don't consider a facemask a selfish play; I don't consider a defensive pass-interference a selfish play or an offensive holding a selfish play. But an unsportsmanlike conduct is a selfish play. It makes one player feel good and it makes everybody else pay the price."
On the season, the Lions have been penalized 95 times for 818 yards, with both marks significantly higher than the league averages of 77.9 penalties and 652.4 yards through Sunday's games. Last season Detroit was assessed 136 penalties for 1,018 yards.
The PFW spin
The Lions are under the microscope, and the time to have done something about that has passed. Greater self-restraint would have helped them considerably; look no further than DT Ndamukong Suh serving a two-game suspension for stomping Packers OL Evan Dietrich-Smith. Now the question is: Will the Lions show more discipline in the final four games? And how will Schwartz — and team leaders — respond if mistakes persist? Those are issues to watch.
If the Lions limit their mistakes, they can be an even more formidable foe. Detroit has the talent to play with the NFC's best. The passing game can give the opposition fits. WR Calvin Johnson demands double-teams, opening up opportunties for other receivers. RB Kevin Smith has helped the running game, though he has battled an ankle injury.
The defense is dealing with injuries in the secondary, with FS Louis Delmas and CB Chris Houston inactive in Week 13. Also, DT Nick Fairley, who played very well early in place of Suh, flashing some very intriguing ability vs. the run and the pass, continues to battle foot woes.
There are plenty of "ifs" with the Lions. The health of the defense is part of the uncertainty. So is their discipline. But at 7-5, their playoff hopes are still far from flickering. They are favored to win vs. the Vikings on Sunday, and a road contest vs. Oakland in Week 15 and a home game vs. San Diego in Week 16 are games they are capable of winning.
This hasn't been a good two weeks for the Lions, but a rally is within their scope. The number of yellow flags flying the next couple of weeks could tell the tale.