"I'm proud of this football team," Schwartz, the coach of the 4-8 Detroit Lions, said during a Wednesday morning conference call to preview Sunday's game at the Green Bay Packers. "I'm proud of the way we've battled every, single week. You look at our games, I think we only have one loss that was by more than one score, and that was 10 points. We're in every, single game, we fight every, single game. We just need to come out with one more play to get the win rather than a close loss."
Last season, the Lions went 10-6 – their first playoff berth since 1999 and their first season of 10 wins since 1995. Coming off seasons of 6-10 in 2010, 2-14 in 2009 and 0-16 in 2008, the Lions had assembled a roster with a bunch of young, rising players, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.
Surprisingly, this season has been nothing short of a disaster.
After beating the Rams on a last-minute touchdown in the opener, the Lions dropped their next three games. Back-to-back wins against Seattle and Jacksonville got them to 4-4 and poised for a second-half run for the first back-to-back playoff appearances since doing it 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Instead, they enter Sunday's game on a four-game losing streak. After losing at Minnesota 34-24, the Lions failed to put away the Packers in a 24-20 loss, gave away a 10-point lead and missed a winning field goal in overtime in a 34-31 loss to Houston, then blew a 33-21 fourth-quarter lead and lost 35-33 on a last-play touchdown against Indianapolis last week.
"I think you can look at it one way or look at it another," Schwartz said. "You look at it optimistically and say, particularly in the last three games, we're one play away from winning each of those games. We've just got to find a way to make that play during a critical time of the game. You can look at a lot of different plays, and the NFL is like that in general, but I think that there's a big difference between the way we've lost, which have been heart-breaking. Sometimes, it's a lot harder to lose a game on the last play of the game or when it came down to one play than it is to get blown out."
Like with most struggling teams, it's always something – especially in the fourth quarter. Just recall the 2008 Packers, who finished 6-10 because the offense couldn't rally, the defense couldn't hold a lead or the special teams missed a kick or allowed a big return. For Detroit, it's been the offense (Green Bay), special teams (Houston) and defense (Indianapolis) the last three weeks.
It's a far cry from last season, when the Lions were one of the best finishing teams in the league. Stafford led come-from-behind wins from deficits of 20 points against Minnesota and 24 points against Dallas in back-to-back weeks, and also rallied the Lions from 17 down against Carolina and 13 behind against Oakland. Even this season, Stafford's engineered three game-winning drives – including from 17 down at Philadelphia to win in overtime.
It's not always comebacks, of course. Had the Lions scored a touchdown after reaching the Packers' 7-yard line rather than settling for a field goal and a 20-14 lead with 4:25 remaining, they probably would have won the game. Instead, the Packers marched to the winning touchdown, forced a four-and-out and tacked on another field goal.
"We still have a lot of confidence in our guys," Schwartz said. "Earlier this year, we had trouble at the beginning of games. A lot was made of our slow starts. It's been making the play, particularly in the fourth quarter, going back to our game against Green Bay. We had opportunities to make those plays and get it, also. We had a first-and-goal (at the 10-yard line). If we can get a touchdown there, it pretty much salts the game away. We got held to a field goal, which gave Green Bay a chance to go down and make a play. Even after they scored, we still had an opportunity to potentially go down and get in field-goal range. We didn't do either of those things. You can all recognize those things. We see them, and it makes us more determined to come out on the right side of the score."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.