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For the Detroit Lions, progress is measured in small steps. When a 2-10 team like the Lions faces the New England Patriots, the words 'statement game' are probably most applicable - a chance to show what you can do against the big boys, so to speak.
"We played hard, but that is what you are supposed to do in this league," Lions coach Rod Marinelli said after a loss to the Patriots on Sunday. "But now we need to find a way to win games."
Winning is something that has alluded the Lions franchise over the past five seasons under general manager Matt Millen. Still, the Lions played arguably their best game of the season on Sunday but another fourth quarter collapse cost them a chance to beat a very good team.
"It is just frustrating that it happens continuously, not just today," said Lions running back Kevin Jones. "We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
With the playoffs not a possibility, pride and the desire to get better is what motivates Detroit at this time of year.
"We just need to keep playing," said Lions tackle Jonathan Scott. "That is the only way we can fix our mistakes."
Most of the Lions' mistakes have come in the fourth quarter, often wasting three quarters of quality play. On Sunday it was the same script: the Lions turned the ball over three times in the final period - blowing an eight-point lead.
"We just lose focus in the fourth quarter," said Jones."Everybody has to be on the same page and that is not often the case which is why we turn the ball over."
That description could not have been any more accurate seeing how many points the Lions left on the table - points that could have put the Patriots away for good. Early in the fourth quarter the Lions had the ball second and two inside the Pats' 10-yard line. On second down, the Lions ran the ball gaining only one yard. On third down, Lions quarterback John Kitna tried a quarterback sneak, gaining almost nothing, meaning it was fourth and inches. Instead of trying to pick up the first down, the Lions kicked a field goal, leaving four potential points on the board.
After the Pats tied the score at 21, Detroit got the ball back with eight minutes remaining and on the second play Kitna threw an interception. After a Pats fumble, the Lions had one more chance and the result was the same. This time Kitna fumbled the ball.
"The difference between making the playoffs and being on a bad team is executing in the fourth quarter," said Scott. "That is the reason the Patriots win Super Bowls and we have not gone to the playoffs in the past few years."
The game against the Pats was also a chance for first-year coach Rod Marinelli to demonstrate that his team has indeed improved since it began training camp five months ago. By now, each NFL team has had roughly 500 practices and a coaches style is either resonating or not with his team.
"It does not show in our record," said Lions safety Terrence Holt. "But we have come so far this season. When you have a young team like us, adjusting to the new schemes can take almost a whole year."
More than new schemes, Marinelli's approach is the polar opposite of his predecessor, Steve Mariucci. Mariucci was a hands-off players coach, while Marinelli has run the Lions with an iron fist. The hiring of someone like Marinelli is not surprising considering the off-field trouble that has plagued the Lions in recent seasons.
"The intensity is the biggest difference," said Holt. "If you screw up then he is going to let you know about it. Rod does not hide his feelings. He is not afraid to get in players faces."
Marinelli also understands, like his players, that playing well with the game on the line will be the key to turning the franchise around. He must correct a culture in which Lions players are often doubting themselves come the fourth quarter.
"We have done everything to try and fix our fourth-quarter woes," said Marinelli after the game. "I run the tape over and over again trying to show them what went wrong. Whether it is penalties or a miscommunication, it is something we need to fix.
Marinelli's task is not an easy one. He must turn around a franchise that has made poor draft-day decision after poor draft-day decision. The most maligned of which is the decision to take three straight wide receivers with their first-round pick - only one of whom Roy Williams has made a significant contribution.
As for the other two: Charlie Rogers is no longer with the team and Mike Williams is riding the bench. But the Lions have another solid wide receiver in Mike Furrey, who connected with John Kitna nine times for 123 yards.
The records of the Lions in the past five seasons are 2-14,3-13, 5-11, 5-11, 5-11. Not exactly what owner William Ford Jr. expected when he hired Millen - someone who had been an all-star football player and a successful NFL announcer. It is, however, difficult to question the work ethic of the general manager.
"He is a former player himself so he understands what it is like," said Holt. "He is not a general manager that is never around. He has been constantly involved, hard working, but a lot of his decisions for whatever reason have not worked out."
With the Lions at 2-10 one would think that Millen should be gone by season's end. But then again, that is what some said two and three years ago.