Playoffs Are Within Reach!
Going into this season, there were definitely high hopes among many fans of the Detroit Lions. According to my preseason prediction I had Detroit 7-2 at the bye week, and went as far as to make a bet with Around The NFL writer Chris Wesseling that the Lions would be playoff contenders this season. When few outside of Detroit believed that would be the case.
After the debacle in Chicago however, things quickly became grim and that early hope evaporated as many were willing to throw in the towel. After that 1-3 start however the Lions went on a wild 4-1 run to respond, and now sit in first place in the NFC North at 5-4 with the potential of a home playoff game. Just like that, the now affectionately known Cardiac Cats vaulted themselves into very unfamiliar circumstances, becoming mid season playoff favorites floating just above a sea of mediocrity. On the back of Mathew Stafford and a fun to watch ‘YAC Attack’ passing game this team looks borderline unbeatable when they are on. Combined with a defence that is slowly but surely getting healthier, the Lions seem to be peaking at just the right time while other teams struggle to deal with losses the Lions already had to address earlier in the season.
With that lets take a look at what is potentially in store for the Lions down the home stretch:
Current NFC Standings:
1) Dallas Cowboys, 1st in NFC East, 8-1
2) Seattle Seahawks, 1st in NFC West, 6-2-1
3) Atlanta Falcons, 1st in NFC South, 6-4
4) Detroit Lions, 1st in NFC North, 5-4
5) New York Giants, 1st Wildcard, 2nd in NFC East, 6-3
6) Washington Redskins, 2nd Wildcard, 3rd in NFC East, 5-3-1
7) Philadelphia Eagles, 4th in NFC East, 5-4
8) Minnesota Vikings, 2nd in NFC North, 5-4
9) Arizona Cardinals, 2nd in NFC West, 4-4-1
10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2nd in NFC South, 4-5
11) New Orleans Saints, 3rd in NFC South, 4-5
12) Green Bay Packers, 3rd in NFC North, 4-5
13) Los Angeles Rams, 3rd in NFC West, 4-5
14) Carolina Panthers, 4th in NFC South, 3-6
15) Chicago Bears, 4th in NFC North, 2-7
16) San Fransisco 49ers, 4th in NFC West, 1-8
While the Lions currently sit in a great spot, it is by no means time to get complacent. They have a big tie breaker over Minnesota from their last game, however that still leaves them tied. Green Bay is only one win a way and they hold the tie breaker over Detroit. On top of that, if the Lions don’t take the division, there are currently nine teams behind them with four or more wins. Making a wild card spot almost a complete toss up at this point in the season.
The Lions need to keep winning and build some breathing room on the rest of the division at any opportunity to make up for their poor performances earlier in the season. Keys for the back half will be capitalizing on home field advantage for all of their remaining divisional games, and overwhelming some teams that are having some struggles down the stretch. To do that the offense is going to have to keep building on their momentum and start opening up some earlier leads.
Watching the Cardiac Cats is fun, no doubt about that, but innevitably keeping teams in the game to the very last play will eventually lead to some losses. Playing consistently well throughout the entire matchup will ensure victories instead of hoping for some late play magic, and getting wins early will be essential before heading into a suddenly quite challenging back end of the schedule. On the other side of the ball, the Lions need to capitalize off of this break to get healthy. A lot of their struggles thus far on defense have come from their loss of key players and lack of depth, both caused by injuries. The more that they can improve their roster through health in the second half, the more ballanced the team will be going froward. Here’s a look at how the rest of the Lions schedule should play out in my mind.
Week 11 vs Jacksonville
In probably my most embarassing moment from this years pre-season prediction series, I was one of the people who bought in on the hype of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In fact I didn’t just buy on them, I went all in, calling the team “dangerous on both sides of the ball.” Claiming Bortles was “a solid gunslinger”, and that the Lions could “potentially be overwhellmed by a better roster.” Wow that was a miss. The Jags at this point only have two wins, their offense is well within the bottom ten in every statistical category except garbage time passing yardage. Their run defense has been abysmal despite all their additions, and Bortles is tied for the second most picks in the league with the 28th overall passer rating. This team has been beaten down and completely ready to give up on yet another lost season. Detroit absolutely must capitalize on this game to get ahead of the competition. 6-4
Week 12 vs Minnesota
In game two of the Lions post bye week home stand, they play the second matchup of the November double header against the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota is absolutely reeling on a four game losing streak and with a tough game against Arizona coming for them in week 11, Detroit could be in a position to firmly distance themselves from the Vikings at Ford Field. They are still very much an injured team, with Erik Kendricks going out yet again with a hip injury, Xavier Rhodes sustaining a concussion, and Jake Long getting a season ending achilies injury. All last week against Washington. If they are missing one or both of their defensive stallwarts on top of even worse players starting on their offensive line, they will have an extremely hard time competing with the Lions if they come ready to play, especially on the road. Even if their key players that have the potential to return come back, the Vikings have fundamental issues that will keep them from winning in Detroit. 7-4
Week 13 at New Orleans
The Lions next head off to the Superdome to face a good Saints team that has played quite well at home this year. New Orleans primary issue however is their defense and that plays right into the hands of the Lions. In fact, there has only been one game all year where they have limited their opponent to under 20 points, and have allowed 27 or more in over half their games. The real issue for Detroit is whether their own defense will step up enough for them to come away with the win, as New Orleans has been one of the most potent offenses all year. The key at this point in what looks like a tight matchup will be the health of the Detroit Lions defense as their effectiveness will dictate whether they will be able to hold against the Saints onslaught. Barring any setbacks over the next two weeks, Slay, Ngata, and for the first time in a long time Deandre Levy should all be back on the field. Others who have been playing hurt like Ansah and Taylor should be that much closer to their top form. That would be a huge boon to the Lions defence, especially if Levy can find a way to get back to his past probowl form. This game will come right down to the wire and could easily go either way, but I will give the edge to Mathew Stafford and his late game heroics as the ultimate tie breaker in close matchups. 8-4
Week 14 vs Chicago
If you did not have the pleasure of watching the Tampa Bay – Chicago game, let me spare you the awfulness. Jay Cutler after one uncharacteristically positive week was hot garbage, throwing two of the worst picks in the league thus far and outside of one hail mary pass was generally inept all game. Now true as any seasoned Lions fan knows, Jay Cutler goes through ups and downs and when combined with a slowly becoming half decent defence this could be a sneaky trap game. Cutler more often than not though over the last several years has been far more bad then good. Add in the fact that they will be without Alshon Jeffery due to a PED suspention and the home field advantage of Detroit, I can’t find a way to give this game to Chicago so long as the Lions show up. Then again they didn’t show up for the first one of these games this year, so maybe this isn’t the lock I think it is. 9-4
Week 15 at NY Giants
This is the begining of the seasons toughest road stretch starting at Metlife stadium. The Giants have been very good recently with a lot of offensive firepower and a slightly stingier then expected defence. The Lions however matchup quite well against this team. The giants recievers are great, however they are all smaller route runners which the Lions secondary does a much better job covering as a rule. They also don’t have a quality TE which puts a little less stress on the linebacker corps, and the passing game should be able to find holes in the Giants defence. On top of that the fairly inept Ben Mcadoo who is being dragged along by the talent on his team is one of the few people Jim Caldwell can consistently beat in a coaching battle, and that’s always an exciting fact to note. I will give Detroit the edge here but like the Saints game I could see this one going either way. 10-4
Week 16 at Dallas
In the 2014 playoffs revenge game the Lions matchup against the NFC leading Cowboys in their only primetime game of the year. I so wanted to put this as a win because revenge is needed among Lions fans, but I just don’t see it. Eziekiel Elliot is looking like a once in a generation runner behind one of the truly great offensive lines of the last several decades, and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has kept the offense moving seemlessly all season. I don’t think Stafford will have an issue putting points up against this defense, but Elliot and the Cowboys offense will control the pace and pull out the victory. 10-5
Week 17 vs Green Bay
With the Packers crumbling like they are right now this might just be a pride game for them. They still have several tough games left on their schedule and it would not be shocking if they are out of the playoff discussion in the last week. On New Years Day the Lions crowd will be fired up with a playoff spot locked up based on this scenario and the Packers will have no wind in their sails. 11-5
Now is this a Kool-aide projection? probably. There are several close games that could take them from 11-5 at the top to 9-7 at the bottom. Regardless we as Lions fans need to be prepared for the likelihood of playoffs, especially with who we have left on our schedule. I know its hard to have hope, the Lions have pulled the rug out on fans many times before, but now is the time to think that magic word: playoffs.