Regular podcast co-host Case brings us his reaction to the 2017 schedule release…
The 2017 schedule release is seemingly one of the more minor events of the off-season, but for me, it’s almost as important as the draft itself. Something about knowing how the week-to-week will look like makes it real. You can start building your personal schedule around it. Ultimately, everything we think about the schedule will be subject to change as the teams we face move up and down in the rankings, but at the very least it gives us a foundation to work from.
This year in particular, it’s difficult to break things into significant chunks. With that said, I’ll arbitrarily take it 4 games at a time and try to make that mean something. Keep in mind, the way the 2017 schedule plays out, the story lines could easily change significantly every single week.
Weeks 1-4: Early Gauntlet
Week 1 – VS Arizona
This game has a lot more meaning for the Lions than it does for the Cards. The Cards have low-key been the Lions’ bane for a long time now, winning their last seven meetings, going back to 2006. Now, that said, the Cardinals are coming off a disappointing season and still firmly headed in the wrong direction as they faced another hemorrhage of talent this off-season. Quinn apparently asked the league to give the Lions a better balance of home and away games in the early stretch, and this may be the evidence that it worked. The Lions will be favored and should win their home opener this time around.
Week 2 – @ NYG
I have the Giants pegged as the #2 team in the NFC this next year, so the Lions’ first away game is going to be a huge challenge. Getting these kind of games early in the year though is an advantage, in my opinion, because randomness tends to play a much larger role early in the season. Also, it leaves them with more room for error if they lose. We saw last year what happened when we faced some of the best teams in the league to close out the season. Anyway, this is not a game I expect them to win, but at least early in the year, I expect them to have a chance. It could be a surprisingly low scoring affair as the Giants’ offense will likely take some time to hit their stride.
Week 3 – VS Atlanta
I have the Giants pegged as the #2 team in the NFC. Guess where I have the Falcons? The Falcons had the best offense in the league last year, and while they are going through a change at offensive coordinator, the talent to remain the top offense is still there. Where week two of the 2017 schedule will put the offense to the test, week three will show whether or not the Lions have an NFL caliber defense, which is still a question at this point. Still… much like the Giants, better to get this team early in the season because there may be some hiccups with the OC change, and it leaves the Lions with plenty of time to recover if they lose.
Week 4 – @ Minnesota
It’s the question of which Vikings team will show up to start the season? The dominant defense and efficient offense that won five straight games to open the 2016 season, or the so-so defense and toothless offense that showed up thereafter? My guess is, it’s somewhere in between. On paper, they still have a top 10 (maybe better) defense, but a below average offense. They upgraded their OL from horrendous to bad, but the ceiling on that unit is still pretty low, as they have a below average QB, bad OL, and below average receiving corps. If they hit on a stud RB in the draft, it would make them more interesting, but they are still almost certainly below average on that side of the ball. All this makes it sound like I expect the Lions to win this game, but it’s more of a 50/50 in my eyes, as the home field advantage and familiarity help to even things out.
Week 1-4 Wrap Up:
It is definitely a tough stretch to start the year, with my two favorites for the NFC crown, a division opponent looking for revenge, and a team that just always seems to have our number. That said, there isn’t a single one of these games that is a must win. If they Lions come out of this grouping at 2-2, they are in VERY good shape. If they come out 1-3, things are still pretty good. Even 0-4 won’t necessarily spell the end for them. These 4 games also start a trend of home and away games every other week that will last all the way to week 14. Some see this as a negative, with no long stretches at home, but I see it the opposite as they will be able to get into a solid routine and won’t have to face long stretches on the road that can really be hard on the body and mind.
Weeks 5-9: Better, Maybe?
Week 5 – VS Carolina
I have the Panthers pegged as likely for a big bounce back. They had a major influx of depth-quality talent in free agency and they will see the return of the best, and most important, member of their defense, Luke Kuechly. Picture if Levy had come back healthy in 2016, and the huge defensive boost that would have given the Lions. But still, all that said, there were a lot of flaws exposed on the Panthers squad in 2016. They have depth at receiver, but are lacking at the top end of the roster. Their top receiver is Greg Olsen, who turned 32 this off-season. Similarly, they will likely have to hope for big production from a rookie RB as Stewart hit the 30-year mark this off-season. A mediocre defense will have a chance to limit these guys, we just have to hope the Lions’ defense is at least mediocre.
Week 6 – @ New Orleans
In terms of points per drive, the Saints had the 2nd most scored, and the most allowed. Every game against the Saints is a recipe for a shootout. In 2016 against the Saints, the Lions came away with a whopping 3 INTs, or 30% of their total for the year. That’s unlikely to happen again. That said, the Saints’ defense allowing the Lions’ offense to look good? That could easily happen again. AJ Klein could compete for a starting ILB role, but no-one is going to mistake him as a great starter. Manti Te’o could surprise, but it’s unlikely. So, they added some depth across the defense, but are still incredibly weak at the top of the roster. Meanwhile, they replaced Brandon Cooks with Ted Ginn JR as their major vertical threat. Ginn has never been the receiver Cooks is, let alone the fact that he just turned 32. If their deep threat isn’t quite as threatening, it should allow the Lions to control the tempo the way they like.
Week 7 – Bye
I’m generally a fan of later byes, but basically, as long as it isn’t in weeks 4 or 5, it’s a win.
Week 8 – VS. Pittsburgh
Does the 2017 schedule ever get easier? Yes. But not this week. By my current power rankings, we face the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best teams in the league in the first half of the season, and the Steelers come in 4th. They sit on probably the 2nd best offense in the league, especially with the return of Martavis Bryant from suspension to give them a vertical threat. Their defense isn’t perfect, but if they can find a way to fill in the gaps in their LB corps, they will still have a solid group. My biggest hope for this game is that Abdullah is completely healthy and at his best so we can see him do things that usually only Le’Veon Bell is able to do. It’s important to note, even though the Steelers were one of the best teams in the league last year, they lost a few games last year they shouldn’t have, and will likely do so again.
Week 9 – @ Green Bay
Well, we knew it was coming. As I’ve said before, I really prefer to face the Packers in Lambeau early in the year, which outside of last year, almost never happens. But that said, it’s still better to go to Lambeau in early November than any time in December. The Packers are a beatable team, and I don’t think they’ve improved. They definitely upgraded their TE situation, but that’s about it. It’s the 2nd year in a row they have lost talent on the interior of their OL, and it’s highly likely that what was a major strength could now be a weakness. Micah Hyde was crucial for them in terms of his ability to play any role in the secondary at a reasonable level. Julius Peppers obviously isn’t quite the player he used to be, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time replacing his production. Still, as we’ve seen time and time again, this team drafts well and builds from within. This year will be a challenge for them, and I seriously doubt they have any real shot at a championship, but they are still the odds on favorites to win the NFC North.
Week 5-9 Wrap Up:
Three of the four teams here I have pegged for the playoffs, which could make it a really grueling stretch. Having the bye in the middle of it hopefully means they are able to recover and win at least 1 of the 2 games following the bye, but I’m not counting on it. Going 1-3 in this group would keep them alive, and 2-2 would put them in solid shape to finish the year strong.
Weeks 10-13: A Breather, Relatively Speaking
Week 10 – VS. Cleveland
Ahh, my most hated non-NFC North team. They’ll have to leave the Factory of Sadness, AKA Cleveland Browns Stadium, for a trip to Detroit. I won’t let my hatred of them bias me though, this team has been going about rebuilding the right way. Stocking up on draft picks and being wise with their cap space should lead to improved results down the road. Still, they are a year or two, and some good luck, away from being a “good” team. It’s a given that they will have poor QB play, which won’t be helped by a lousy receiver corps, and their defense has major holes everywhere (31st in points allowed per drive in 2016). Oh, did you wonder where Gabe Wright ended up? Yup. Anyway, they’ll rely on their strong run game to try to control tempo, but if at any point the Lions take the lead, it’s pretty much over.
Week 11 – @ Chicago
I know no one probably wants to hear this, but the Bears are going to bounce back. They’ll get healthy, especially on defense, and will probably be one of the better QB needy teams in the league this year. They have a strong run game and their defense should be at least average (for one thing, they’ll almost definitely create more turnovers). They spent a ton of money in free agency to build up their defense and receiving corps depth, as well. That said, it’s rare for teams that make a ton of moves in free agency to see a large benefit from it, as there are many complications that can happen from changing the makeup of a team so dramatically in one off-season. If everything goes well for them, they are probably an 8-8 team. More realistically, they probably end up in the 6-7 win range. Last year two of their three wins came from division games, and they almost beat the Packers at home in week 15 when Green Bay were playing their best football. They will not give this game away easily.
Week 12 – VS. Minnesota
There isn’t much more to say, other than all three of our home games within the NFC North come in the 2nd half of the year. That’s pretty sweet. The real push for the playoffs starts this week. If the Lions leave this matchup at 6-5 or better, they’ll be in the hunt for sure.
Week 13 – @ Baltimore
The Ravens are sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Saints. I have them as a dark horse for the best defense in the league this year, after the addition Tony Jefferson gives them the best safety tandem in the league. Adding Brandon Carr at CB helps their depth their as well. However, their already weak offense looks significantly worse after the losses of Rick Wagner, Kyle Juszczyk, Kamar Aiken, and Vladimir Ducasse. To add to their potential woes, the oft injured TE, Dennis Pitta, turns 32 in June. A top tier defense and potentially bottom tier offense lead to what will probably be an average team. In my eyes, that means it should be pretty evenly matched.
Week 10-13 Wrap Up:
This is absolutely where the Lions start jockeying for position in the playoffs, as well as the division. They should win at least three of these four games, which would put them in great position to finish out the year.
Weeks 14-17: A Not TOO Rocky Road
Week 14 – @ Tampa Bay
The only consecutive road game of the season is against the former NFC Central division foe. I currently have the Buccaneers slightly ahead of the Lions in my power rankings, mostly because they have crazy high offensive potential and finished last season very strong. The addition of DeSean Jackson to their receiving corps really makes perfect sense and they could sit on a top three receiving corps. They also added a few decent depth pieces on defense. Still, Winston is going to have to prove he can continue to take steps forward. Most of their losses last year came in games where he threw multiple picks. If the Lions are able to upgrade their intermediate pass coverage through the draft, and the pass rush improves with a healthy Ansah, this could easily be a game where both Quin and Slay get a pick. I expect it to be a close one.
Week 15 – VS. Chicago
The Lions have beaten the Bears at home four times in a row now. It’s unlikely that will change here, especially if the Lions are in the hunt and the home crowd is pumped.
Week 16 – @ Cincinnati
The Bengals went to the playoffs for five straight years from 2011-2015, but they fell off last year, going 6-9-1. Normally, one down year after so many solid ones would lead me to expect a bounce back. However, their collapse was not a fluke and had everything to do with the severe loss of talent they faced in the 2016 off-season. In 2017 they faced a similar loss of talent, especially on their OL. Andy Dalton is in for a rough season and I won’t be surprised to see the Bengals picking in the top five in 2018. Unless they find some unexpected success on the OL, this is a game the Lions should cruise to victory in, and could set the stage for another all important week 17 showdown.
Week 17 – VS. Green Bay
For years and years it seemed the Lions always ended up on the road against a division rival in week 17. That changed last year with the Lions getting, and failing to capitalize on, the Packers at home in the final game. The Lions could have won the division with that game, and it’s too bad they didn’t. It’s a new year though, and they’ll get another shot to potentially make it the most important game of the week. It’s not difficult to get hyped up about our chances against the Packers this season as TJ Lang spills the brats on all of the Packers’ secrets, but of course, it’s never going to be easy against them. This could be an outstanding finale to the 2017 schedule.
Week 14-17 Wrap Up:
If my projections hold up, and it’s unlikely they will, the Lions should be in great position to control their own destiny. I won’t be surprised, given the difficulty of the 2017 schedule as a whole, if the Lions end up going 8-8 and missing the playoffs, but if they get some quality returns in play from their young players and free agents, 10 or 11 wins isn’t out of the question.
2017 Schedule Overview:
The 2017 schedule has a few quirks of note. As I mentioned, with one exception in weeks 13-14, the Lions alternate between home and away games. Some see that as a negative, as they don’t get any extended stretches at home. I’m of the opposite view though, as I think the long road stretches have a high likelihood of starting losing streaks. It will produce a nice routine for the team to get into. As some of you have no doubt also seen, the Lions have the 2nd worst “rest differential”. That means that the Lions will face teams coming off of more time off than all but one other team. That sounds bad, but ultimately, the difference between the worst and best rest differentials is almost negligible. They do face three teams coming off a bye (New Orleans, Green Bay, and Chicago), which could create some issues as two of those games are games they “should” win, but ultimately it’s unlikely that it will be a deciding factor in any of them. In my opinion, while this is a difficult schedule, it’s about the best we could have hoped for in terms of how it actually plays out.