The Detroit Lions finished the 2017 season with an identical 9-7 record to their 2016 campaign. Last year, it was good enough to garner them a wildcard berth into the postseason, but not so this season.
While on the surface the seasons appear very similar, beating the weaker teams and falling to the better teams, there is one area where the Lions clearly regressed that cost them back to back playoff appearances for the first time in two decades. The fall off of the performance in the clutch was perplexing.
Matthew Stafford said as much citing the lack of comebacks as a reason the Lions are not playing in January:
Last season, eight of the nine Lions victories came courtesy of the 4th quarter comeback. Memes of Stafford as a comeback king circulated throughout the Lions fandom. Fans were incensed earlier this year when a national pundit sent a twitter poll about the QB you’d like to have for a 4th quarter comeback and Stafford wasn’t even one of the choices.
But then the 2017 season happened. By all the metrics, Stafford had a good year. Perhaps his best if you look at completion %, passer rating, yards, touchdowns, Interceptions, and all the other measurables. The offense still can’t run the ball, but that rarely matters when you’re talking about late 4th quarter comebacks.
So let’s look at the results. The below tables list the scenarios where the Lions got the ball mid-4th quarter or later trailing by a single score.
In both 2016 & 2017, the Lions had eight opportunities with the ball in the latter part of the 4th quarter and down by but a single score.
In 2016, they got the necessary score on six of those eight drives including the final five opportunities. Half of those successful drives started with 1:05 or less on the clock. In 2017, they were “Oh fer”, and all eight opportunities started with over two minutes remaining. It’s worth noting that in six of the eight drives last year the Lions were down three or less and it was a 4+ point deficit in seven of eight this year– decreasing the odds of success. Although the two times they needed a touchdown last year, they got it.
It wasn’t all bad news this season for the late game offense as it relates to comebacks and the like. The Lions did manage two late-game drives in tie games that netted the game-winning Matt Prater field goals (Tampa Bay & Chicago). They drove the entire length of the field against Atlanta only to have their game-winning TD overturned on video review on what proved to be the game’s final play.
In under 15 minutes of game time, they clawed back from a massive 35 point deficit in New Orleans to down only seven with the ball and a chance to draw even in the 4th quarter (although it’s worth noting that the offense didn’t score a point in the 4th). They did also find the end zone on their last two possessions in the 4th quarter against Carolina after trailing by 17, but the defense couldn’t get the stop they needed to get the required third score to complete the comeback and fell by three points. They also won two other games in which they trailed or were tied early in the 4th quarter (Arizona & Cleveland).
If you are looking for the Honolulu Blue and Silver lining in this, it is a fair point that they won the same number of games without having to rally late to win any of those games while six of their nine 2016 victories required such heroics. And while only one of their seven losses was close enough in 2016 that the Lions had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead late, five of their seven losses were that close this year.
So in only two of the 16 games did the Lions offense not have a chance to draw even in the closing minutes (Carolina & Baltimore). But this is the NFL where games are often close and decided late. And if the Lions are going to win division titles, playoff games, and the likes, their offense is going to have to not just be good, but also be clutch. In 2016, they were definitely clutch. This season, they were not.