Trey Flowers sat at his locker for a good 15 minutes, pads on, the emotion of a gut-wrenching defeat plastered on his face.
The Detroit Lions blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to the Green Bay Packers in a little over nine minutes, with two questionable officiating calls – penalties on Flowers – at the root of their collapse.
The NFL admitted one of those drive-extending penalties was wrong a couple days later, but as far as the Lions were concerned, the damage was done.
Flowers wanted nothing to do with the apology, and the Lions, still reeling from the loss, played their worst game of the first half of the season a few days later in a 42-30 loss vs. the Minnesota Vikings. They snapped briefly out of their funk the next week with a too-close-for-comfort win over the New York Giants, but when Matthew Stafford fractured bones in his back in an early November loss to the Oakland Raiders, the season went sideways.
Seven more losses later, the Lions enter Sunday’s season finale against the Packers with a bit of unfinished business on their mind, a chance to spoil Green Bay’s hopes of getting a first-round playoff bye and maybe head into what’s sure to be an offseason of change on a high note.
“Obviously, that game left a bitter taste in our mouth, but all we can do is worry about this one,” said quarterback David Blough, who’ll make his fifth start Sunday in Stafford’s place. “It’s different guys for us, it’s different guys for them. We got to go out there and put our best foot forward this week. Can’t be thinking about Week 5, that Monday night game. We got to go and do it Week 17 with the way the cards line up now.”
The cards don’t line up favorably for the Lions, who have the NFL’s longest current losing streak and third worst record at 3-11-1.
They’ve lost eight straight games, with seven of those losses coming against teams with sub-.500 records, and they’re playing without key starters due to injury at virtually every position: quarterback (Stafford), receiver (Marvin Jones), tight end (T.J. Hockenson), offensive line (Joe Dahl and perhaps Rick Wagner), defensive line (A’Shawn Robinson) and linebacker (Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones).
The Packers, meanwhile, clinched their first NFC North title since 2016 on Monday night, and still have a chance at getting homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. At 12-3, they’re tied for the second-best record in the league.
“I’d like to think that we’re playing for something every game,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “That’s my mindset. We’re trying to play to go win. Doesn’t matter what the situation is, doesn’t matter what the opponent is playing for, doesn’t matter anything other than we’re trying to go out there and do the best job we can to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Lions had a prime opportunity to beat the Packers in the first meeting between these teams Oct. 14 at Lambeau Field.
Stafford was healthy then, and the Lions seemed in control after scoring the game’s first 13 points, but they left kicking themselves over missed opportunities.
Along with Flowers’ penalties for illegal use of hands, the Lions settled for five Matt Prater field goals, with three of them coming off Packers turnovers.
Flowers said he won’t allow himself to play the what-if game and think about how the season might have been different had the Lions held on to win at Lambeau.
“It could be, or it could be the same. I don’t know,” he said.
But that inability to put teams away has cost the Lions all year.
“We know we have an issue. Our issue is finishing,” running back Kerryon Johnson said. “At least it’s not we start out flat, we don’t play and we don’t finish. It’s one singular problem that we can work on throughout the offseason and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go right at it like we always do with all our issues and we’re going to try to fix it.”
It’s too late, of course, for the Lions to fix their issues in any meaningful way this year. But the hope is, finish the season strong now and it could become habit in 2020.
“It’s close,” Flowers said. “And we’ve been close throughout this year, even with all the mishaps we had as far as injuries, things like that. We still, we fight. So as long as you got a group that’s fighting and willing to sacrifice and work hard and things like that, like I said, it’s just another level that you got to put yourself at.”
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