EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jim Caldwell is as salty as they come after a loss, which I guess is a good thing. Yanking the Detroit Lions out of the pits and into the playoffs is sober, gritty work.
We sometimes forget that the Lions have, indeed, been to the playoffs twice in the last five seasons. Somehow those 11 consecutive playoff-less seasons before 2012, that 0-16 ruin in 2008, is a stench that still sticks with the Lions.
Caldwell arrived as head coach in 2014 and pushed them to an 11-5 record and into the postseason. But last season his team caved to 7-9. They rolled on Sunday into MetLife Stadium winners of five straight, a 9-4 bunch capturing close games and apparently playoff bound. They looked like the New York Giants’ equal.
They left 17-6 losers with touches of grief, gloom, consternation, and doubt. They play at Dallas next Monday and home on New Year’s Day against division rival Green Bay in monster games and monster challenges that, presently, look too steep for Caldwell’s Lions.
Caldwell could feel the angst. It was aptly served in his postgame news conference.
Give this to the guy, he’s as salty and stand-your-ground as any NFL coach around.
A sample serving …
"We’ve never shied away from situations …" he said. "We’re not using that as an excuse … We don’t make excuses for anything, anywhere … We like to play smart, not scared, you know?"
He took a few more shots, but you get the idea.
Caldwell is continually proving to Lions brass that he is the right guy. He is incessantly building his team’s sometimes-fragile psyche. He is forcing them to deal with the fact that Dallas first and Green Bay next may well be the stiffest opponents any NFL team faces in these final two regular season weeks.
He wants them to become as salty and as crusty as he is in this push toward the playoffs.
It is the only way the Lions survive.
They marched into Giants Stadium and limped out. When push came to shove, the Giants did the shoving. The battles in the trenches, the one-on-one matchups that mattered, the Giants won them across the field. The Lions were bullied. The Lions blinked.
They could not run the ball, they allowed the Giants to run it, they turned it over in the red zone and they blew costly defensive assignments.
The real test failed? Just not salty enough.
Here is what rough-and-tumble Giants safety Landon Collins said about it: "We weren’t going to let them run it and we were going to put enough pressure on (quarterback Mathew) Stafford where he couldn’t see the whole field. Now, when they go to Dallas, they better be more physical up front. They’ve just got to man up. They’ve got to get themselves ready to deal with that Dallas offensive line. And the only way you can do that is to man up. You’d better answer that question; can we deal with that?"
Collins and the Giants know. They are the only team to beat Dallas. Twice, in fact.
Giants center Weston Richburg chimed in: "The Lions have a good team. They have good players up front. (Defensive tackle) Haloti Ngata is a real force and a real pro. But that Dallas offensive line is going to try to do what they always try to do — maul you. That’s really what it will boil down to for Detroit going there. Are they going to be able to keep them from doing it?"
Both teams lost their best cornerbacks in this game to early injuries — Detroit’s Darius Slay and New York’s Janoris Jenkins. The Giants ran it 32 times with enough success, the Lions 19 times with little production. Detroit’s red-zone turnovers early and late were issues. Stafford looked OK wearing a glove on his throwing right hand to support an injured finger. Detroit trailed 10-3 at halftime and won the third quarter, 3-0.
But throughout the game the Giants were more physical, more in control, more salty.
"It’s a loss," Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson said. "It’s one game. The main thing is it hurts when you lose. I know how much we put into this week. It hurts. But we still control our own destiny."
But playing in a spectacle game at NFC-best Dallas and then confronting nemesis Green Bay are pressure-filled matchups that require the Lions to first get their minds right. Their attitude, too.
"We’re playing on a football field, the same football field the same size as every football field — we don’t play cities," Lawson said about Detroit’s trip to Dallas. "The fields don’t change. The field determines everything."
Lions veteran receiver Anquan Boldin said that is a message he will repeat to his teammates this week.
"If you make it that way, that we are playing the tradition of Dallas and all of their star power and hype, well, yes, it can seem bigger than life," Boldin said. "We want to play a football game, our best football game, and that will take care of it all. If we’re critical of ourselves and correct things and go play the next game with purpose, we’ll be just fine. The goal is winning the division and getting to the playoffs and that won’t change. And I’d guess if we get there we might see the Giants again. That’s the plan."
Turnovers skew things, Caldwell said.
His offense was out of rhythm too often against the Giants, he said. His defense, too.
"I’m going to provide the kind of leadership this week I always do every week," Stafford insisted in a reflective moment, away from the noise. "We’re going to prepare to finish this season the way we want it finished. Dallas is next and I expect our best at Dallas."
These NFC North Detroit Lions are a first-place team in a prove-it mode more extreme than any other divisional leader -- they’re seeking their first divisional title since 1993.
They’d better get as salty as their coach about in execution and effort.