Over their last three home games, the Detroit Lions have been good enough to be ahead of some of the NFL's better teams — Green Bay, Houston and Indianapolis — with less than 2 minutes to go.
They lost every one of those games, leaving the Lions with twice as many losses as wins with four games left — including Sunday night at Green Bay — and putting coach Jim Schwartz's decisions squarely in the spotlight.
"After every game, we go through the whole game plan and what we'd do different if we had a chance again," Schwartz said Thursday. "We're very self-critical.
"You just live with decisions," he added. "You're always critical, you're always analytical, trying to see where you can do better — whether you're a coach or a player — but you can't lose confidence in your abilities whether you're a player or a coach."
Schwartz's infamously made one big mistake, challenging a Texans touchdown that would've likely been overturned if he didn't lose his cool, and his coordinators have made some calls that didn't work out during three straight setbacks by a combined nine points.
Schwartz owned up to the Texans gaffe, saying he "overreacted" and cost his team a touchdown.
"Yeah, he threw the challenge flag, but I think a lot of coaches would've in the same situation because the guy was down," Lions guard Rob Sims said. "As far as his other decisions, people who criticize them should go into coaching if they think they can do better. I think Jim has done a good job by leading us the right way and putting out fires when needed."
Schwartz, a former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator and first-time head coach, lets Scott Linehan call plays on offense and Gunther Cunningham set up schemes on defense without telling them what they should do during any given possession. Schwartz seemed to make all the right moves last year when the Lions won 10 games for the first time since 1995 and snapped their 11-season postseason drought.
"Someone told me the other day, 'You guys broke 23 franchise records last year on offense,''" Linehan said. "And I said, 'I know, that probably elevated expectations pretty high.'"
Yes, they did.
The Lions (4-8) have fallen short of expectations in large part because they have blown legitimate chances to have a 7-5 record, one that would give the franchise a shot to make two straight playoff appearances for the first time since the mid-1990s.
In pivotal moments in the last three games, the wrong decisions were made and they haven't always been the same ones.
The Lions had chances to put Green Bay away in a 24-20 loss, but had to settle for a field goal and a six-point lead with 4:25 left when a touchdown would've sealed the win. Blame the combination of a lackluster running game and a problem with receiver Titus Young on an incomplete pass on a third-and-goal from the 9.
The Lions had chances to overcome Schwartz's ill-timed challenge flag that negated a review of Justin Forsett's 81-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the 34-31 overtime loss to Houston. Instead, conservative play-calling to set up a game-winning field goal in overtime backfired when Joique Bell lost a combined 1 yard on two runs up the middle and Jason Hanson missed a 47-yard kick.
On the previous drive inside Houston territory, Matthew Stafford ended the possession with three straight incomplete passes — none toward Calvin Johnson — and Detroit had to punt just as it did when Stafford was sacked trying to pass on third downs on snaps from the Texans' 36 in the fourth quarter.
In the latest setback to Indy, nothing worked for Detroit when it mattered most.
Linehan called for a running play with a third-and-5 at midfield with 2 minutes left. Mikel Leshoure, who averaged less than 3 yards a carry in the game on 21 carries, was stopped for a 1-yard gain.
"Hindsight everything's always," Schwartz said. "The whole idea is it has to work. If we run the ball there and we get a first down, the game's over."
One poor punt and some Andrew Luck plays later, and the Colts were in position to win the game on fourth down with 3 seconds left from the Detroit 14.
Cunningham chose to rush just four against the rookie Luck, who moved up in the pocket to make a short pass to Donnie Avery just inside the 10. The Lions' linebackers and defensive backs were all in the end zone and couldn't even touch the receiver before he scored the game-winning TD in the 35-33 win.
What about overruling his coordinators at key points?
"Most of my stuff comes between series," Schwartz said. "Hey, let's think about this next series; hey, let's have more man-to-man; hey, let's start running it more; hey, we need some more play-action."
The Lions are the first team to lose three straight games when leading with 2 minutes left in regulation since San Diego did it in 2000, and the first since at least 1983 to blow leads that late in three home games in a row.
"You're judged by wins and losses and unfortunately, we haven't won much so of course a lot of negatively is going to go his way because he's the head man," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "But players play the game, and we haven't made the one play to win games lately."
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