In between church and my 10-year high school reunion, I swung the family truckster back home. My intent was to trim and/or shave the steel wool that sprouts, unbidden, from my face and neck—but the timing was such that with the volume cranked, I could catch the first couple of drives. By the time I’d finished trimming, shaving, and getting back in the car, the Lions were already down by 14.
I felt a sickening chill in my belly, and a fell curse haunted my thoughts: “Just like last year.” The only thing I couldn't bear was already transpiring: on the road against an NFC South team, two breathtakingly quick scores out of their explosive passing offense, and the Lions had an L on their record before the first half of the first quarter. Just like last year . . . only, not quite.
Don’t forget, last season the Lions were coming off of a 7-9 season (after a 6-2 start), and thinking playoffs, while the Falcons were coming off a worse-than-the-record-indicates 4-12 season, where the wheels completely fell off of the bus. The Lions being down so far so fast was a complete stunner, a shock to the system.
This, however, was exactly what many predicted: Drew Brees exposing a questionable secondary. While it all seemed painfully familiar, this was anything but a surprise—the Lions are an experiment in slash-and-burn football team agriculture, and the Saints are likely Super Bowl contenders. In hindsight, what’s most painful to me is how despite Drew Brees threw six touchdown passes, and Matt Stafford threw three picks, for most of the game, the Lions were still in it.
Yes, thanks to a INT by a Lions cornerback (!), two forced and recovered fumbles, one returned for a TD (!!), and a kick and punt return that each went deep into the red zone (!!!), the Lions kept this one within two scores for most of the game. And that, folks, is really the crucial difference between this year’s opener and last: 0-14 wasn’t the end of it.
Instead of going into full-on meltdown mode, the Lions’ D stiffened up, forcing two straight punts. The O finally got on board with a field goal and a TD. Stafford threw a pick, but Dewayne White blocked the Saints' ensuing FG attempt. Stafford then hit Megatron for an apparent 67-yard TD--and after about 30 minutes of the refs playing Keystone Cops, Stafford punched it in himself. It went on like this, with the Lions (mostly) keeping the bleeding to a minimum, often failing to maximize their ensuing opportunities, but never totally collapsing. All the way up until the very end, the Lions were fighting tooth and nail, making plays to stay in it.
There were some things I saw that I didn't expect to see, though: after talking for months about how he was going to get after the QB, Gun actually went back into a shell after the first two bombs. I've noticed some grumbling about how he didn't bring the heat like he said he would, but let's face it: that's smart coaching. If the other team's quarterback is gashing your man coverage for 20-to-30 yards every time he drops back to pass, blitzing 40% of the time simply isn't an option.
Also, after being pretty damn accurate with his downfield passes all preseason, Stafford looked quite jittery; after throwing a lot of passes short in the first half, they all started sailing on him in the second half. He also threw one of his picks when he pump-faked and the ball slipped in his hand, producing a knuckleball that wasn't anywhere near where he intended. Yes, Matt Stafford looked like a rookie--and while it's possible that Culpepper's veteran presence might have saved a turnover or two, I don't think the offense would have been much more effective--and it wouldn't have mattered anyway; the Saints were just too good.
This has been the crux of the "Start Stafford" argument all along: even if Culpepper is marginally better, him playing over Stafford wouldn't make much difference in terms of wins and losses--and even it would, one or two more wins on a 4-12 team won't matter anyway. According to the broadcasters, Stafford watched every game of Greg Williams' defenses for the last five years on film to prepare for this week; tying that to 60 minutes of live game experience is invaluable experience to a rookie. I still think that Schwartz made the right decision.
In the end, Drew Brees was just too much for guys like Eric King, who was starting in place of Philip Buchanon. Drew Brees was too much for Marquand Manuel. Drew Brees was too much for Avril and White, despite being without his blindside protector, Jammal Brown, and losing Brown's backup in the middle of the game. The Saints were the best offense in football last year, and show no signs of slowing down. Moroever, their defense appears to be dramatically improved, too; they're legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Whereas last year's Week 1 loss had us stunned, reeling, and searching for answers, this game showed us exactly what we, or at least I, expected to see: a shootout that the Lions lose. Believe it or not, the Lions never mustered this many points in any game last season! Now next week's task will be swing the every needle 180 degrees except the one for "Degree of Difficulty": the Vikings have an astounding running game, a lackluster passing game, and a suffocating defense that you can't run on; pressuring QBs and covering WRs without blitzing. I'll be there in person to see how the Lions adjust.