Lions escape, but must be better

DETROIT — It was dicey for a while, and the final score — a covering-the-rare-double-digit-spread win for the Detroit Lions — doesn’t really portray what happened Sunday.

And that, simply, is this: If the Lions want to be a playoff team this season, they must play much better than they did in a 38-24 victory against the winless Cleveland Browns. For much of the game, Cleveland looked equal to — if not better than — Detroit.

Considering how hapless the Browns have been for much of this season, that’s a problem.

The Lions are trying to make the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons. They won’t do it with the type of defensive effort and offensive production they had in the first three quarters against the Browns. Detroit trailed 24-17 late in the third quarter, and the game was tied at 24 heading into the final quarter.

The Lions pulled away in the end — and they’ve been a good closing team — but against better teams, they can’t look like they did in the first half against the Browns.

Cleveland’s offense moved fairly easily against Detroit. The Lions’ offense found a rhythm late but started off slowly and spotted the Browns a 10-point lead. Against Cleveland, that wasn’t too dangerous. Against most other teams in the league, that can be devastating.

What it means: In the end, this is another win for the Lions, pushing them over .500 on the season (5-4) and keeping them in the playoff hunt. But more than anything, it staved off what would have been a devastating loss for Detroit, which would have erased any positive momentum the team gained in a rare win at Green Bay this past Monday night. This is merely a game the Lions had to win because it was a game the Lions should win. It wasn’t pretty for Detroit — not by any means — but it was necessary. And in the big picture, that’s what matters for the Lions.

What I liked: The Lions’ run game looked reasonable against the Browns — mildly surprising considering that run defense is the one area where Cleveland has been good this season. Detroit averaged 5.5 yards per carry, including 11 rushes for 52 yards and a touchdown from Ameer Abdullah. The Lions still haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in years, but Abdullah followed up a rough game against Green Bay with a strong effort against Cleveland. Another positive was the Lions’ ability to close out the game — something they’ve been good at this season, especially in wins over the Giants and Packers. But the fact that the Lions were in a position where they needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to put away the Browns is concerning.

What I didn’t like: There’s a lot not to like here, and it starts with Detroit’s run defense, which allowed Cleveland to rush for 201 yards on 33 carries. The Lions couldn’t deal with the Browns’ assortment of draws and delays with running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, as well as runs by quarterback DeShone Kizer. Considering the Lions’ run defense was No. 6 in the NFL in yards per game and No. 7 in yards per carry entering the game, that’s a really poor effort. Detroit’s defense as a whole struggled until Kizer was injured late in the third quarter.

Fantasy fallout: Three rare touchdown scorers for the Lions — Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron — each got into the end zone, giving their fantasy days much more value. Matthew Stafford had his 300-yard game streak snapped at three but still threw three touchdown passes. Marvin Jones was a fantasy disappointment with just one catch for 22 yards after back-to-back 100-yard games.

Jamal Agnew might be the Lions’ best returner since Mel Gray: Yes, he’s only a rookie, but every time Agnew gets the ball on a punt return, he has a chance to break a big one. He had a massive return called back because of a penalty Sunday but still averaged 14 yards per punt return, 5 yards below his average. That’s how good he’s been this season, and he may end up as a Pro Bowler.

What’s next: Detroit heads to Chicago to face the Bears, who were beaten by Green Bay at home on Sunday. This will continue a string of should-win games for the Lions if they are going to make the playoffs.

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