CINCINNATI - That should do it.
On the Detroit Lions’ season, for sure, and if the Lions are wise, on Jim Caldwell’s tenure as head coach as well.
With a playoff berth on the line and teams across the NFC giving them some of the help they needed to stay in the wildcard race, the Lions turned in a dog of a performance on Christmas Eve, losing to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, 26-17, at Paul Brown Stadium.
Randy Bullock made the game-winning 51-yard field goal with 4:42 to play, and the Lions committed nine sloppy penalties and managed just two touchdowns against the NFL’s worst defense.
Caldwell, on the hot seat for the third straight season, had kept the Lions on the fringes of the playoff race with back-to-back wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears the last two weeks.
But on Sunday, he had no answers for a team that had been outscored, 67-14, in its previous two games.
The Lions were officially eliminated from the postseason with the loss, and they’ll play out the string next week against the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers before general manager Bob Quinn has to make what seems like an obvious decision to start the new year.
Caldwell, who entered Sunday with a 35-27 record as Lions coach – the best winning percentage (.565) of any full-time Lions coach in the Super Bowl era – is 0-2 in the playoffs and the Lions squandered a chance to reach the postseason this year despite injuries to Rodgers and top Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, and with the Chicago Bears a mess and starting a rookie at quarterback.
A mess is apt for what the Lions made on Sunday, too.
Of their nine penalties, five came in the final 8 minutes, after the Lions took a 17-16 lead.
Quandre Diggs was called for defensive holding on third-and-12 and Darius Slay followed with a pass interference penalty two plays later to extend the Bengals’ go-ahead field-goal drive, then the Lions found themselves in third-and-28 after two Don Barclay penalties on the ensuing possession.
Matthew Stafford launched a jump ball to Golden Tate on the final play of that drive, but Dre Kirkpatrick ripped the ball out of Tate’s hands as he and another Bengals defender fell to the ground.
After Sam Martin shanked the ensuing punt, the Lions started the next series with an offsides penalty.
While Caldwell isn’t entirely to blame for the Lions’ shortcomings, the team has been mired in mediocrity for most of his four seasons as coach.
On Sunday, they played too cautiously with their season on the line early, choosing to punt or kick field goals on four fourth-and-shorts in the first three quarters. Martin hit two mediocre punts from near midfield, and Matt Prater missed a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Bengals’ 32-yard line.
The Lions once again had problems stopping the run, and that’s despite Bengals starting running back Joe Mixon leaving early in the game with an injury.
Gio Bernard ran for 116 yards on 23 carries, and sealed the game with a 12-yard touchdown run with 1:54 to play.
The Lions, the second worst rushing team in the NFL behind only the Bengals entering the day, finished with just 87 yards rushing, and Matthew Stafford was 19 of 35 passing for 203 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Quinn has not yet commented on Caldwell's status as coach, but he inherited Caldwell when he took over as general manager in January 2016 and has considered a change each of the last two seasons.
With no playoff berth to tie his hands this year, the decision now seems obvious.
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© 2017, Detroit Free Press