Last night’s moon was full. High, wispy gray clouds glossed over it in a way that often happens in video games but rarely in reality. The air was crisp and clean; I could see my breath. This morning a perfect, razor-thin dusting of snow lays on grass, cars, decks and toys not put away the night before.
Winter is here.
Fittingly, today is November 11th; in the old Julian calendar this day was halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. In old European tradition, today is celebrated as St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas—the end of harvest and planting, and the beginning of the lean Winter months. As Fat Tuesday is a feast before a spiritual fast, St. Martin’s Day was a time to feast before there was nothing to eat but canned, pickled, and salted winter foods.
This morning I’m reminded of the harsh, cold winter months to come. A reminder that this glorious young 2011 football season, so full of promise and hope, is halfway over. A reminder that the Lions, who we’ve had the pleasure of seeing romp their way to a 6-2 start, have a grim task ahead of them.
Up until this point there’s been no downside; coming off eight wins in 48 tries the Lions could win as many games as they lost satisfy the expectations of many. Now the stakes are higher. The rewards are much greater but the risk is, too. Now the coaches, players, executives and fans are fully invested in this season’s run to the playoffs. If they fall, it will hurt.
In the NFL, you can take nothing for granted. Every year is a blank slate, and while that means a team like the Lions can rise up from nothing and conquer, it also means a rock-solid franchise like the Colts can crumble to dust without warning. As young and as talented as this team is, and as competent and intelligent its leaders, this iteration of the Lions may not ever start 6-2 again. They have begun something great, but they have only begun.
The last time the Lions climbed to this altitude, it was 2007. They started 6-2 and then, halfway to the mountaintop they slipped off the cliff face and fell down, down, down into the abyss of the deepest black crevasse. That they’ve climbed back up to 6-2 again is nothing short of incredible . . . but it’s not enough. This team is good enough to ascend much higher, and if they don’t it will be not only a terrible disappointment, but a wonderful opportunity permanently lost.
Back in the relative warmth of October, the Lions hosted the Bears on Monday Night Football. It was the greatest home-field advantage the Lions have had in my lifetime: a sold-out-beyond-capacity crowd gathered from near and far, hometown music and and video montages, and all the pomp and circumstance of the national prime-time stage. The blue fire of Lions fandom never burned brighter than on that night.
As you know, the crowd fueled and fed the Lions, forcing Chicago into nine false starts and helping push the Lions to a 24-13 victory. Jim Schwartz awarded Lions fans a game ball: permanent, tangible proof that we, the Lions fans, truly helped our team to victory. Being there, lending my support, will forever be one of my most treasured memories and proudest moments.
I suppose we should feel proud, then, that Jay Cutler took pains to note the Lions won’t have that support on Sunday:
"We're going to be outside, not in the dome," Cutler said. "We're going to be on grass. It will be a little bit of a different environment for them as well."
"They don't have that [Ford Field] advantage on their side this time. It's going to be on our side," Cutler said.
Cutler thinks that playing outside will work to their advantage; that the Lions have no teeth outside the supportive comfort of their Ford Field den. He thinks that the elements, cold and cruel, will turn the tables. That Old Man Winter will be at the Bears back when the Lions enter the Windy City, and the cruel, bitter home field advantage he supplies will be as powerful as the mighty heat and warmth of the blue bonfire at full roar.
Well, you know, except for this:
“Sleet and mess forced #Bears to move practice indoors to Walter Payton Center”
Though Matt Forte is being bandied about as an MVP candidate, the truth is that the Bears will go as Jay Cutler and the passing game goes. On that warm October night, Forte rushed 22 times for 116 yards, plus caught four passes for 35 yards, and the Bears could only muster 13 lousy points. Cutler played at an almost superhuman level to avoid a relentless Lions pass rush and couldn’t quite net 250 passing yards, out of 38 attempts.
The Lions and Bears are two talented teams with streaky offenses and stingy defenses. The Lions got plenty of help on Monday Night, but they’re also undefeated on the road. After a decade-long bout of road futility unmatched in 80 years of NFL play, the Lions haven’t lost a road game in three hundred and fifty-five days. If they can get the job done Sunday, that streak will extend to at least December; they’ll have completed a full calendar year without a road loss.
As this December comes, as Winter falls on the land again, the Lions have climbed the easy half of the mountain. Now their test—and ours—begins in earnest. Now is when the Lions need the heat and warmth of the bonfire the most. Let’s keep their blood pumping, their faces flushed, their fingers and toes twitching at the speed of combat. Let’s support our team with everything they’ve got, as they set out from base camp for the glorious mountaintop.