If TV executives were forced to pick which games aired on their networks every week, they’d be begging each other to take Sunday’s Detroit Lions-Jacksonville Jaguars game and next week’s Lions-Atlanta Falcons contest.
As wholly uninteresting as those games among teams with a combined 2-12 record are to just about everyone but the people involved, for the Lions and coach Matt Patricia, the next eight days are quite possibly the most important two-game stretch of Patricia’s career.
Putting aside the question of who that says more about, the Lions or Patricia, the fact is the 1-3 Lions will either slink their way back into playoff contention against two of the NFL’s dregs the next two weeks, or buy Patricia a one-way ticket to his vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Not trying to be a douchebag or anything, but they’re in the NFL, they get paid just like we do,” Lions running back Kerryon Johnson said. “I don’t think Jacksonville’s going to go out there and be like, ‘Man.’ I mean, hell, I think they’re, what, 0-and-something? I mean, we got one more win than they do, so I don’t think they’re looking at this game like we’re just a superior team and we’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh, these guys don’t have any wins.’ And then next week the same way.”
The Lions may not be looking at this week’s game as a gimme, and given the way they’ve played so far this year, why would they?
But I suspect Johnson won’t be the only one surprised to learn Jacksonville is actually 1-4 on the season, and its lone win – 27-20 against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1 – rivals the Lions’ when it comes to impressiveness.
Records aside, the Jaguars are one of the least talented teams in the NFL, and if the Lions can’t beat them, coming off a bye week, there’s little reason to believe Patricia can turn this sinking season around.
Same goes for the 0-5 Falcons, who fired their head coach and general manager earlier this week and are the Lions’ Spider-Man meme when it comes to late-game collapses.
“Two teams that have got a lot of great players on their teams and kind of just haven’t put it all together, so no way at all we’re sleeping on them at all,” Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “We’re going in there with the mindset of trying to just make sure we get back on track with these weeks and get out there and just play our best ball.
“We still haven’t played our best ball throughout the first quarter of the season. The closest we’ve played to it was Arizona and we liked how it came out. If we just play to the best of our abilities for those two games, hopefully that will help us build the confidence going into the rest of the season.”
Despite blowing double-digit leads in losses to the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of the season, and looking impressively uncompetitive for large stretches of two of those games, the Lions have a favorable enough schedule over the next six weeks that they could stumble their way into a wildcard berth.
Including the Jaguars and Falcons, teams in last place in their respective divisions, the Lions’ next six opponents have a combined record of 10-25.
Winning most or all of those games won’t prove anything other than the Lions are back to where they were before Patricia took over as head coach, when they routinely feasted on the NFL’s many bad-to-mediocre teams but struggled against anyone remotely good.
But it would cool the coils on Patricia’s pouffe and at least buy him till the month of December, when the Lions’ schedule stiffens again, to prove he’s the right man for the job.
Patricia, naturally, downplayed talk of the opportunity at hand the next few weeks, saying his focus is only on Jacksonville, and played up talk of the Jaguars, calling them “explosive” and “dangerous” and a bunch of other adjectives you have to squint to make come true.
But rocket scientists are smart, so it stands to reason Patricia knows exactly the predicament he’s in.
Public belief has waned in his regime, and according to an unscientific poll of my neighbors and the man who stopped me at Meijer this week, is at an all-time low. Beyond that, the NFL is a copycat league, and two teams this year already have moved on from their underachieving head coaches – both of whom accomplished much more than Patricia during their reigns.
The Falcons fired Dan Quinn less than four years after he led them to a Super Bowl, and the Houston Texans fired Bill O’Brien earlier in October despite winning four division titles in his six full seasons as head coach.
Patricia said he reached out to both Quinn and O’Brien after their dismissals “just to make sure that they were doing OK.” But perhaps not wanting to sign his own death certificate, he declined to say if we're far enough into a season for teams to fairly evaluate a coach, or if the Lions have had enough time to evaluate him.
“I mean, I’m really focused on the Jaguars here, guys,” Patricia said. “So, I mean, from that standpoint, we got a big game in front of us. We’re going to try to go down to Florida and play well.”
The Lions should play well against the Jaguars. They’re rested, relatively healthy and, well, most everyone does.
If they don’t, that’s a bigger indictment of where things stand than anything that has gone on to date, and it might close the book on Patricia’s tenure in Detroit.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions enter biggest 2-game stretch of Matt Patricia's career