Monday, December 27, 2004

Hanson, Jones Leave Their Footprints On Lions' 19-13 Victory Over Bears

By Jay Clemons, from
One may be the Lions' Ghost of Seasons Past. The other may serve as the Ghost of Seasons Future.

But longtime Detroit kicker Jason Hanson (four field goals) and explosive rookie tailback Kevin Jones (123 rushing yards, 1 TD) converged to shape the team's present on Sunday, as the reliable tandem catapulted the Lions to a hard-fought 19-13 victory over the Chicago Bears, before an audience of 61,924 at Ford Field.

This win, however, did not come easy for Detroit (6-9), which nearly lost a 16-0 lead in the third quarter before staving off Chicago's final-minute rally.

"A win is a win," says Lions head coach Steve Mariucci. "And I'm happy the team (was) not elated and celebrating (in the locker room)...our hopes and (long-term) dreams are a higher standard than that."

Boosted by Jones's consistent rushing gains (his longest run was 39 yards), Detroit seemed in high command throughout the game.

"Things are slowing down for me. I am just trying to get better each week, while preparing well at practice," says Jones, who also surpassed the 1,000 yard mark Sunday (a Lions feat only shared by Barry Sanders and Billy Sims). "I didn't have a complete game like I wanted to...I have just have to get better and do better next week (at Tennessee)."

But down by six with less than two minutes remaining, Chicago was moving methodically toward a go-ahead touchdown. And in a crucial play with 1:33 left, Bears quarterback Chad Hutchinson's 43-yard bomb to Bernard Berrian in the end zone was ruled incomplete.

In the instant-replay, though, Berrian may have secured the catch; but the officials ultimately declared that cornerback Andre' Goodman jolted the ball loose before Berrian took full possession.

Even if Chicago had scored then, Mariucci was very confident his offense would have executed a successful two-minute drive for the winning score. (But the point was moot, once the game officials upheld the Berrian incompletion.)

After this gut-wrenching sequence, the Lions' defense then prevented the Bears receivers from any more downfield catches -- thus sealing their third home win this season. Sensing the evolving maturity of his young club after an incomplete-but-positive result, Mariucci said his team is still resolute on achieving a "convincing win" before season's end.

"We're still striving for that," he says.

After Hanson's 31-yard field goal opened the scoring, the Lions then drove 70 yards in eight plays for a second-quarter touchdown, capped by Jones's one-yard plunge into the end zone. On the possession, Lions quarterback Joey Harrington completed four passes for 57 yards, including a 26-yard laser to rookie receiver Roy Williams at the Chicago 1. Detroit now had a 10-0 lead.

Detroit tacked on two Hanson field goals (34,39) before halftime, running the lead to 16. (In fact, the Lions were 3-for-3 in second-quarter drives.) On the final possession then, Harrington orchestrated a 62-yard drive in the waning moments -- including a picture-perfect 28-yard pass to receiver Reggie Swinton, between two defenders.

Mariucci was relatively pleased with the first-half performance before remarking, "Still, we've got to be able to finish teams off."

Detroit seemed on the verge of routing Chicago to open the second half, marching to the Bears' 24 -- before a fumble (resulting in a sizable loss) precluded Hanson from attempting another field goal. Two drives later, Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs intercepted Harrington's pass -- amid a Bears' all-out blitz -- and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. But with the missed two-point try, Detroit still had a 16-6 lead.

"We know we should have finished (Chicago) off. We played pretty well in the first half," says Harrington, who completed 15-of-30 passes for 166 yards and one interception. "We moved the ball, did some good things...(then) we kind of slipped into a comfort zone. We just don't quite have that killer instinct. The mark of a great team is when you put a team down, you put another (score) on them."

In the fourth quarter, Hutchinson and Chicago tailback Thomas Jones keyed a 90-yard scoring drive -- capped by Jason McKie's 15-yard touchdown pass -- which cut Detroit's lead to six (19-13). However, there would be no more scoring.

For the totals, Detroit outperformed Chicago in the following categories: total yards (314-229), first downs (17-16), time of possession, rushing yards (158-124) and passing yards (156-105). Swinton earned the Lions' most receiving yards (42), whereas Williams led with three catches. And Jones propelled the rushing corps with 123 yards.

"It's great to see Kevin run like that," says Harrington. "Today's a great example of what a solid running back can do."

Regarding Chicago, Hutchinson completed 20-of-35 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. Thomas Jones paced the rushers with 109 yards on 22 carries. He also amassed team-highs in catches (four) and receiving yards (34).

With its home slate concluded, Detroit wraps up the season next Sunday at Tennessee (4-11). The Bears (5-10) host NFC North winners Green Bay (9-6) then in their home finale.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Singular Task Ahead

By Jay Clemons,
It's neither avoidance nor denial. Think of it as tunnel vision.

On the heels of a painful loss to Green Bay from Sunday, Detroit Lions Head Coach Steve Mariucci bore the look of a man resolute on not the sweating the fates of other NFC clubs in playoff contention. Why worry about things you cannot control, right?

In fact, at his regular Monday media address, he barely broached the team's postseason prospects -- despite sitting one game back in the wild-card standings (with three games remaining).

"I'm not concerned about the playoff race right now, even though we're still in it," says Mariucci. "We're not going to talk about three games (remaining) -- we'll talk about the next one. Our focus, concentration and energy will be on beating the Minnesota Vikings."

Detroit's 16-13 defeat to Green Bay -- a game in which the Lions (5-8) only trailed for two total seconds -- plunged the club back into a six-team pool (along with Dallas, New York Giants, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Chicago) for the final playoff opening, behind 6-7 St. Louis and Carolina.

But it also served as a harsh reminder to Mariucci that moral victories have a limited shelf-life of acceptance in the NFL.

"We lost (Sunday) close...but we lost it and that's the bottom line," says Mariucci, adding the club had an excellent showing in the first half, in terms of being properly prepared, playing physical football, weathering the cold and windy elements of Lambeau Field and displaying high confidence in the coaches' game plan. "However, the bottom line is winning the football game and making the plays necessary at the end to win it -- not to come close.

"We have too many ‘close ones.' Whether it means getting one more sack, one less penalty, one more catch, one more throw, one more first down when you have 3rd-and-1 or one more red-zone touchdown, that’s what we have to do; and that’s the bottom line," he says. "While I was pleased with a lot of things in that football game, there were not enough good things that occurred in order for us to steal a win. It would have been a great win, but close doesn’t get it done. Close gets you 5-8."

Generally speaking, Mariucci was heartened by the Lions' defense and running game (193 total yards) -- especially the blocking prowess of the offensive line and skill-position talent. Specifically, he marveled at the high-speed evolution of tailback Kevin Jones, who ran for 156 yards on 33 carries (a club record for rookies). In the last four games, he has accrued 551 rushing yards.

"That's one of the areas that we feel good about -- it is not just a one-man 'Kevin Jones Show.' Yes, he's playing well and he's doing it for us as a rookie," says Mariucci. "There is still upside, (and) he is going to get better as he keeps playing."

Amid Jones's stellar period, though, the offense has failed to score a touchdown in the second half of the last five games -- heavily factoring in the Lions' recent road losses to Jacksonville, Minnesota and Green Bay.

"It's a lack of efficiency and a lack of execution...In a game a like (Sunday's), the Packers controlled the ball in the second half -- especially in the third quarter," Mariucci explains. "They put two long drives together...we haven't had as many snaps in some of the second halves. Whatever the reason is, it's not acceptable. We need to score touchdowns in the second half."

Similar to most NFL teams, the Lions' success is predicated on the proficiency and playmaking capabilities of their quarterback, Joey Harrington. Coming off a tough outing (completing only 5-of-22 passes for 47 yards), Mariucci empathized with his signal-caller on Monday, amid a bevy of questions centered on whom would start against the Vikings -- Harrington or backup Mike McMahon?

"You know that I like Joey and that I like Mike -- I've said that several times publicly," says Mariucci. "They're both good guys and hard have to take that into consideration: Who gives us the best chance to win? Who is the most 'practiced up' at the time?"

Regardless of any future changes, Mariucci reaffirmed his trust in Harrington to win games and lead the team. (On the season, Harrington has connected on 201-of-366 passes for 2,174 yards and 15 TDs).

"I have confidence in Joey; I have faith in Joey. Would I like him to play better? You bet, absolutely. I can say the same thing about most of the guys on our football team...whose performances have been inconsistent, up-and-down and close but not always there," says Mariucci. "I'm looking at Joey hard, in terms of what he has had: in terms of coaching...experience...playing time...practice time...where he is right now and where he is headed (and) what kind of team do we have around him, in order for him to be more productive and successful."