Gave: Despite playoff loss, gritty Lions gave us season to remember

For better or for worse, this season felt like the start of something special.

Matthew Emmons

Heads up, Lions fans.

Your team gave us a lot to cheer about this year right to the end, when a shanked punt and some curious officiating Sunday enabled a Dallas team facing its own playoff demons to sneak past a tenacious Detroit club that controlled play most of the night until a mistake-prone fourth quarter.

An otherwise well-fought playoff game featured an appalling performance by the guys in striped shirts. The Cowboys spotted Detroit a 14-0 first-quarter lead the Lions held until a touchdown pass from scrambling Tony Romo to Terrance Williams with just 2:32 left to play in the game, sending them to a 24-20 win.

Despite playing the best football of his career and leading the hottest team in the league since the beginning of December, Romo entered this game with the reputation as a spectacular playoff underachiever. But he was able to shed that, leading his team to a stirring comeback against the tenacious visitors from Detroit.

So the season ends abruptly for a team that nobody expected to be here in the postseason in the first place. Think about it: Back in August, even the most optimistic prognosticators figured the Lions were at best an eight-win team, and most figured them for five or six wins.

Instead, they reeled off 11 victories — including five improbable come-from-behind efforts that won a lot of long-suffering hearts in this town. And they rolled into Green Bay in the final week of the season when a win would have secured them a division title and a first-round bye.

That’s the kind of football season we’ve just enjoyed in this town. And compared to the last, oh, 50 years or so, we should be a little grateful.

The Lions did it with a defense that terrorized offenses on a weekly basis — even when they weren’t stomping on an opponent’s leg. They won with an inconsistent offense that found ways to score just enough, or at just the right times — while minimizing critical turnovers that haunted their past.

This heartbreaking loss at Dallas featured the best of both in the first half. Big plays by Golden Tate — the MVP of this offense all season long — and Reggie Bush gave Detroit the early lead. And the Lions front-four driven, pass-rush defense used a variety of blitzes to keep Romo under duress much of the game.

The best way to contain a hot quarterback, besides taking his comfort level away, is keeping him off the field, and Detroit’s much-maligned offense did that by controlling the ball for a big part of the first half.

Have you seen a more impressive, efficient drive than the 99-plus yarder that ended with the Bush scamper and a 14-0 lead?

And have you seen a more infuriating play than the obvious pass interference call on Dallas defender Anthony Hitchens on a third-down play with 8:10 to go in the game? In a move even former NFL Director of Officiating Mike Pereira couldn’t explain, the officials reversed themselves, picking up the flag without explanation and forcing the Lions to punt when they should have continued the drive with a first down leading 20-17.

There followed the shanked, 10-yard punt, and what happened next seemed inevitable, didn’t it? Dallas used a short field to score the winning touchdown, and a wonderful season we thought might last another week, at least, was suddenly over.

Yes, this franchise still has its issues — some stats that will continue to surface until it buries them like Romo buried his Sunday. The Lions still haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1991. And despite how well he played Sunday, Matthew Stafford is now 0-18 on the road against teams with winning records. They’ll have to get past that.

But for better or for worse — and there was a whole lot more of the former in these Lions under first-year coach Jim Caldwell — this season felt like the start of something special. Something real. Something we can embrace, and even trust.

The best part, perhaps? No more Same Old Lions. It’s time to bury that moniker alongside Michigan Man. And look forward to next season.