Football is a game of inches both literally and figuratively.
A very small amount of literal space on the field, whether it’d be a close first down, a fingertip deflection, a toe-drag on the sideline or a ball bouncing off an upright, can separate a win from a loss.
A very small amount of figurative space also separates teams, with parity reigning supreme in the NFL.
One needs to look no further than week six opponents Detroit and the Philadelphia Eagles for evidence.
“This game, in this league, you look at (the Eagles’) record and you look at our record,” said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. “They’ve won three games by a total of four points. (their losses), really one game was a little bit out of hand but the other one was last second field goal too. We’re the exact same but flipped. That’s the way it goes. You just try to give yourself a chance to win in the fourth quarter and go out there and make the plays that are necessary to win the game.”
For both the Eagles and the Lions if a few plays – or a few inches – changed in the right circumstances they could be looking at very different records.
“Your record is what it is. We’re a 1-3 football team and there’s nothing else that we can do about that right now other than go play this next game,” said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. “But you have to look at the reasons that you had success and the reasons that you failed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we’re a couple plays away from being 3-1. It doesn’t matter – we’re still 1-3. There’s no consolation or anything else. But when I say we fine tune, there’s a difference between fine tune and overhaul. We need to play better in some spots. We need to improve in some areas. No different than if we were 3-1 right now.”
Schwartz isn’t wrong. There are a few plays from each loss – all of which entirely in the Lions control – that could flip the team’s record.
Against the San Francisco 49ers, cornerback Drayton Florence got flagged for running into the kick after a field goal attempt by the 49ers, extending the drive and providing a four-point swing. Later in that game, Lions kicker Jason Hanson missed a 40-yard field goal – his only miss of the season. Later Kyle Vanden Bosch took a needless face mask call negating a four-yard sack after a failed flea flicker play, a drive which the 49ers eventually scored on. The Lions lost the game by eight points.
Against the Tennessee Titans, punter Ben Graham injured himself on a first-quarter punt from his own 10-yard line. The injury seemed to impact the quality of the kick, as Graham rattled off a 40-yard punt with less than four seconds of hang time. A better punt most likely would have resulted in a fair catch; instead, the Titans were afforded the room for a cross-field backwards lateral that resulted in a touchdown. Fast forward to overtime and rookie cornerback Bill Bentley is flagged for a needless holding call on a third and 16 play, giving the Titans a fresh set of downs rather than a sure punting situation. The Titans went on to score the game winning points. On the following drive, center Dominic Raiola failed to hear that the ball wasn’t intended to be snapped on a fourth and inches play, resulting in a botched play and a lost game.
Even their most recent loss, against the Minnesota Vikings, included two dropped passes in the end zone and multiple other self-inflicted wounds in a game they lost by only seven points.
But people don’t see the inches, they see the record.
“You don't get any extra points for winning by one or winning by two. You get the win,” said Schwartz. “And that's the bottom line in this business. There are a lot of things for people to talk about. That's what's good about the NFL but we just need to focus on getting a win regardless of how it is. Whether we run, pass, blitz, don't blitz, however we fashion it. That's the bottom line. We started 1-3. We didn't do a good enough job in the first four games doing that.”
Still, the Lions aren’t rattled and know that they aren’t too far away from turning their record around.
“There are 12 games left in the season,” said defensive end Cliff Avril. “So much can change in the next 12 games. As far as us, especially. We feel like we have a great team, we feel like we can go do some things, it’s just proving the league and everybody else that thinks negatively of us, it’s proving them wrong.”
The Eagles aren’t preparing to host a 1-3 football team, they are preparing to host a talented group.
”Well, they’re explosive. They’re an explosive football team and well coached and so that’s what we’re preparing for,” said Eagles’ coach Andy Reid. “We’ve got to prepare our tails off for them because they’re very, very good. They’ve had some close ones there that got away but that happens and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready for a very explosive team. Both sides of the football.”
Being “explosive” or “very, very good” doesn’t matter at the end of the day. There are no columns in the standings for those. Instead, it’s about winning football games and the Lions know that.
On that note, it’s not how you start but how you finish.
“It’s one thing to go 4-0 and never lose a game till the first round of the playoffs,” said defensive end Willie Young. “It’s another thing to go lose a game or two here and there and come back and go to the ‘ship (championship). I think the biggest thing for us is just taking one game at a time. Let’s play ball the way we know we’re capable of playing. Everything else is going to take care of itself.”