Turning point for Matt Patricia and Lions? Detroit looked competent, even in defeat

It was so easy to be cynical about the Detroit Lions entering their game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Hell, it was so easy to be cynical about the Lions this season in general.

Understand, cynicism, complete with a dash of a never-ceasing sense of doom, is the default position for most Lions fans. Sixty years of misery will do that, the cumulative effect of crushing losses, handed down from one generation to the next.

I’ll spare you the list of atrocities inflicted upon Lions fans since their last NFL championship — which came three years before JFK was elected president, just to be clear — but if you need a nice summation, think of the Cleveland Browns’ overall ineptitude, mixed with the unyielding sense of failure that the once-cursed* Chicago Cubs endured, and you get a good sense of what I mean.

(*There actually is a Lions curse. They traded their star quarterback, Bobby Layne, after the 1957 title and it’s rumored he said they’d never win another championship again. Bobby nailed that one.)

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So when the Lions went 6-10 last season under new coach Matt Patricia amid reports the team wasn’t taking kindly to his tough-love approach, it was easy to fear where the 2019 season was headed. Even though Lions general manager Bob Quinn — whose butt is on the line with Patricia — assured me in training camp that Patricia was working hard to make sure the worst-case scenario wouldn’t happen.

“This guy grinds more than he should ... I worry about him not getting enough sleep at night,” Quinn said. “He’s doing everything in his power. The people who really know Matt understand [him]. I think our players are definitely starting to see that.”

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 29: Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones (11) celebrates a long pass reception during the Detroit Lions versus Kansas City Chiefs game on Sunday September 29, 2019 at Ford Field in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lions receiver Marvin Jones celebrates a long reception in Sunday's game against the Chiefs. (Getty Images)

Yet, the Lions were arguably the least-talented team in a super-competitive division, even with a spate of high-dollar free-agent additions. They also had a ridiculously difficult early schedule to contend with, one that looked more daunting following their season-opening tie against the sorry Arizona Cardinals, a game in which they bumbled away an 18-point fourth quarter lead. After that game, you could already feel fans in Detroit — a place where they booed the Lions during the first half of the first preseason game this year — readying their paper bags.

Then something unexpected happened: The Lions used a late interception of Philip Rivers to stave off an all-but-certain Los Angeles Chargers rally and held on for a 13-10 home win in Week 2 against a team that went 12-4 last year.

A cynic could explain that away as Rivers — who is going late-stage Dan Marino on us at this point in his career — going Rivers. And last week, when the Lions went into Philadelphia and beat the Eagles despite showing a complete inability to run the ball, a cynic could also explain that as the beat-up Eagles simply not having the offensive firepower to hang.

However, after the Lions’ showing on Sunday against the AFC favorite, it’s harder for any cynic to dismiss the Lions as anything but competent.

Yes, the Chiefs came away with a 34-30 win. But they needed a game-winning drive, complete with some magic from reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, to do it. Mahomes had to pull a 15-yard scramble out of his keister on fourth-and-8 at his own 34-yard line to counter the drop-eight coverage Patricia has used so effectively recently to close out games.

From there, Mahomes, who failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time since last October, had to make a few more “I’m-the-effing-MVP” throws to set up the game-winning touchdown plunge by Darrel Williams with 20 seconds left. By the time it was over, Mahomes’ stats looked fairly pedestrian (24 of 42 for 315 yards, his lowest total of the season) as the Lions played hard and looked like a well-coached team.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford gutted his way through a hip injury for a strong performance, completing 21 of 34 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, while the Lions’ dormant run game awoke for 186 yards on 35 carries. Detroit looked better for most of the contest, and that’s saying something considering they were without its best corner, Darius Slay, and there was no shortage of events where it looked like the ghost of Bobby Layne hovered over the Ford Field turf.

Take Kansas City cornerback Bashaud Breeland’s 100-yard fumble return, for instance, which came after a fumble near the Chiefs’ goal line that was dubious enough that multiple Lions didn’t bother chasing him down and resulted in a 14-point swing. Also, young tight end T.J, Hockenson, a star in the making, left the game for good with a scary concussion after he failed to hurdle two defenders.

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 29: Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia shake hands following the Kansas City Chiefs 34-30 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday September 29, 2019 at Ford Field in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Matt Patricia got some encouraging words from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid after Detroit lost, 34-30, to Kansas City. (Getty Images)

Both events would have deflated past Lions teams, but this year’s group continued to compete and was rewarded with the respect of their opponents, a team that not only boasts a generational offense and quarterback, but one that also reached the AFC title game last season and appears to be a mortal lock to do so again after starting 4-0.

“My hat goes off to Matt Patricia for the job he’s done,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters. “We saw this on tape … he’s done a phenomenal job with this football team, and their personnel guys have brought some good football players to go with that but this is a well-coached football team right here. The Lions are in a good place with him at the helm there.”

Reid is often complementary of opposing coaches. But the way he delivered this, with a pointed finger as he reinforced the message, made it seem especially true – not that it should make Patricia feel much better.

Even though his team now heads into the bye week with a respectable 2-1-1 record, they missed out on an opportunity for a regime-solidifying victory in Year 2, the kind that would have cooled off his hot seat and put the football world on notice. Now, he’ll have to keep grinding in hopes of notching quantity of wins instead of quality, since no other team on the Lions’ schedule matches the Chiefs’ prestige.

While there are no moral victories in professional football, even Patricia seemed to hint that for a team with so much negativity surrounding it — in a city that will always be waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding its football team — Sunday’s promising performance may be a sign that all the hard work he and his players are putting in is starting to pay off.

“I’ll say this — I’m really proud of this group,” Patricia told reporters. “I think this is an extremely tough, mentally tough team. I think they fight, I think they’ll play, I think they go out and compete and proud of them for that.”

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