The last two weeks showed exactly why we waited so long to stick a fork in the 2012 Detroit Lions. (And why we probably waited too long.) In back-to-back weeks, they had Super Bowl contenders on the ropes. They outgained the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, and it felt like the Lions outplayed them both for most of the game. Yet Detroit lost both times.
The Lions have more talent than any team to be forked so far this season, with the possible exception of the Philadelphia Eagles. But the Lions couldn't put it all together and found out how hard it is to go from good to great. Instead, they slid right back to mediocre.
What went wrong
Matthew Stafford is great one week and spraying passes the next. He's up and down from quarter to quarter. It's hard to rely on a franchise quarterback like that. Stafford's mechanics were wacky to begin the season, and the Lions' offense was one of the most inefficient in the league. Stafford is falling in love with the sidearm throw.
A perfect stat sums it up: The Lions are second in offensive yards but just 14th in points. They are great at playing from behind but can't hold on to leads because of their weak running game. The Lions move the ball well but turn it over too much. They are minus-7 in turnover margin, which is 26th in the NFL.
The injuries to running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best hamstrung this team, but it's not like Leshoure has solved the problems since returning. He's solid. The Lions need another running back to help him. Receiver depth should have been a strength, but Titus Young hasn't developed as hoped. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew forgot how to catch the ball.
We came into the season expecting the Lions' secondary to struggle, and that has been the case. FootballOutsiders' metrics have Detroit as the 28th-best defense. We did not expect Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch to take a step back. Avril has eight sacks but hasn't provided pressure as consistently. Vanden Bosch looks well past his prime.
The Lions haven't played complementary football. When the defense plays well, the offense falls short (i.e. the first game against the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears). When the offense plays well, the defense can't hang on, like on Thanksgiving. The special teams has been one of the worst in the league and has cost the Lions at least two games. Flip that around, and we're looking at 6-5 instead of 4-7.
What went right
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been a vastly improved player since coming off his suspension. We'd argue he's already better than Ndamukong Suh; they form one of the better interior duos in the league.
Detroit's offensive line also has quietly done a solid job. Gosder Cherilus re-shaped his career. It's a little odd that first-round draft pick Reilly Reiff is used as a sixth offensive lineman/fullback, often at the expense of tight end Brandon Pettigrew's playing time. Calvin Johnson also remains Calvin Johnson despite a lack of touchdowns early in the season. Rookie Ryan Broyles shows great quickness and looks like a keeper. This receiver corps remains very dangerous.
The Lions made a number of winning drives under pressure (against the St. Louis Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks), but they still struggled to finish overall. Nine of their games were decided by eight points or less. The Lions are 3-6 in those games.
What still matters
Stafford has taken a step back this season. It's easy to forget what a young quarterback he still is; his development over the final five weeks with new weapons like Leshoure and Broyles remains important.
Coach Jim Schwartz has to keep the Lions from imploding with more on-field and off-field antics, or it will look like he has lost complete control of his team. The schedule is tough the rest of the way, so the Lions will have to claw just to get to six or seven wins.
What changes are coming?
Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew are safe. They built this program up from zero wins and certainly deserve more time. Even at 4-7, these Lions are far better than any Matt Millen team. They do a nice job entertaining us every Thanksgiving.
The Lions aren't far away from being a playoff-caliber team. The larger question is if they truly can be a championship contender. They still have a young core of players that acts too young. It's a franchise that needs to grow up.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.