Can the Lions follow the Packers' footsteps this year?
The Detroit Lions face a long, treacherous road if they're to achieve their ultimate goal. They will be dissected, criticized and dismissed to no end by writers, commentators, analysts and opposing fans. They will be facing a road trip through teams that are familiar with dominating at home. They will face coaches that have seen their strengths, weaknesses and tricks before. They will be facing long odds against opponents that have proved to be among the best of all time.
Yet, all is not lost for these young Lions. If this were 10 years ago, thinking a Wild Card team could advance to the conference championship or Super Bowl would earn you a straitjacket and padded room. These past half dozen years have changed our view of Wild Card teams.
The Lions have a realistic chance at going deep in the playoffs. Before you get a straitjacket ready, listen to the reasons. They are not as far-fetched as one may think.
The first game pits the Detroit Lions against the New Orleans Saints in a rematch of one month ago, where the Saints won 31-17. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, same Bat-location. We'll be having flashes of deja vu left and right.
By kickoff time, people will probably expect a complete Lions rollover. Announcers and critics will be exposing every weakness the Lions have. At the same time, the idolization of Drew Brees will approach Tim Tebow levels. The Saints are already 10.5-point favorites, a line that shows almost no confidence in the Lions. The Saints are a seemingly clean team, which has had a feel-good reputation since Hurricane Katrina. The Lions are a team that has been vilified as a dirty team.
Is this game as hopeless as many people believe? Personally, I don't think so. The Saints won by 14 points earlier, but the Lions were having a really bad day. If they had played their best game, they may have taken that game. But they didn't. Mental mistakes killed drives. Healing hands just came short. Suspended and injured players could have made an impact.
The Lions are going to show a different team this time around. Matt Stafford is fully healed, Ndamukong Suh is back, the receiving corps is still healthy and performing to the standards of the best units around, including the Saints. The Lions passing game is fourth best in the league, facing a Saints secondary that has let up the third most yards of any team in the league.
The Saints will not give them many gifts, though. Drew Brees is the best quarterback this year, and faces a Detroit secondary that struggled against a backup quarterback. However, these Saints have shown weaknesses. If they don't play their best against the hungry Lions, they'll suffer a second straight first-round exit.
Just remember, even Megatron beat Optimus Prime once in a while.
Let's see less of these
Nineteen straight losses? Broken. Nineteen straight division losses? Broken. Twenty-six straight road losses? Broken. Thirteen-year Metrodome losing streak? Broken. Can a second shot at the 21-game Lambeau streak be the magic one? Maybe, but the Lions need their best game.
The Packers are definitely the team to beat in these playoffs. Any time a 15-1 team emerges, it's the team to beat. However, 15-plus-win teams aren't as unbeatable as you may think. Of the five previous teams to lose one or less, only two have won the Super Bowl.
The Lions have their work cut out for them in this matchup. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be back in the saddle, as well as Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings. Many critics point to the fact that Rodgers wasn't in their last matchup to believe the Lions have no shot against New Orleans or Green Bay. They do not mention the positive of Matt Flynn playing a Frank Reich-like game (the best backup performance ever), and the depth of Green Bay in that even sitting starters, it can keep the streak alive.
If the Lions get past the Saints, the line on the Packers game will likely be higher than 10.5. The Lions will face more critics next week than this week. However, these Lions have been feeding off criticism all year.
Ultimately, this game will be won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes. The talent level gap between these two teams is not as large as most people believe. The real difference is the mistakes. Green Bay doesn't make many mistakes, while the Lions have made many costly mistakes. If the Lions can eliminate their mistakes and force a couple from the Packers, this game will end another nefarious streak.
The NFC Championship would be against the 49ers, Falcons or Giants. The Lions hosted the first two previously this season, but have not seen the Giants. Regardless of the opponent, the Lions will be facing them on the road.
The 49ers handed the Lions their first loss of the season back in October. This game was in Detroit, and was very close. Penalties and bad run defense cost Detroit the game. The penalties are a bit better, but will need to be eliminated for Detroit to have any chance of a win. San Francisco isn't perfect as a team, but it's playing about as well as it possibly can. The 49ers need to keep that up for any chance of the Super Bowl, even against the Lions. The real challenge will be the Lions offense against the 49er defense, one of the stoutest in the league.
The Falcons are another team that beat the Lions at Ford Field. As with the other NFC teams in the playoffs, they are not invincible, but the Lions will need to cut the mistakes and try to stop the run. The Falcons seem to be the most balanced team in the NFC playoffs, ranking 10th in offense and 12th in defense. However, their defensive strength, like San Francisco's, is in the run defense. If the Lions can take advantage of that opportunity, they'll be Super Bowl bound.
The Giants are the other longshot in this NFC field. However, they know the underdog role well, having won a Super Bowl as a No. 5 seed against all odds. Their passing offense, led by Eli Manning, is excelling this year. Their rushing attack is the worst in the league. This is definitely not the Giants we've seen in recent years. A game against the Giants will seem like old hat, after winning against the Saints and Packers. If this is the matchup, the Lions look good for the Super Bowl. Still, a great game must be played.
The ultimate goal for these Lions is not simply to make the Super Bowl, but to win it. Winning the Super Bowl is often more difficult than the entire season leading up to it. Not only do you have to focus on the game, which is the only way these Lions will win, but you have to pander to the media days, the ongoing speculation of who's leaving the team this offseason, the spotlight of every private detail of your lives being broadcast to millions.
It's a process that's taken great teams and watched them make mistakes that cost them the championship. It's also a stage where underdogs have both been annihilated and victorious. Any team that makes the Super Bowl has a chance to win, including the Lions. Unlikely heroes are made, unlikely scapegoats are blamed.
I don't know whom the Lions will face, but each AFC team has proven itself worthy of being on the stage. Even the wild-card Bengals have a chance. OK, probably not, but we've seen weirder upsets. Just look at last year.
The Patriots are the No. 1 seed. They're healthy and Tom Brady knows how to win. The Lions would have to have the same sort of game they did against the Packers and Saints.
The Ravens are No. 2 and possibly the best bet out of the AFC. Their defense is extremely stout and they have just enough offense to win the game. It would be a tough match for the Lions, but if they're here, they can beat anyone.
Houston's in at No. 3. The Texans are a longshot at this point, having lost their starting quarterback. But Arian Foster has taken this team on his back, and he wants the gold just as much as any other player. The Lions' weak run defense would have problems, but their offense will outscore Houston in the end.
Denver slipped in at the last minute. We've seen Detroit face the Broncos already, and there's no reason to believe the rematch won't end the same way.
Pittsburgh is so much like Baltimore it's scary. Top-notch defense, decent offense, problems for the Lions all over the field. The Lions would need no mistakes and play at their best to win this matchup.
Cincinnati vs. Detroit would be a feel-good story, wouldn't it? We had a chance at a No. 6 seed Super Bowl last year, but the Jets came up just short. Could it be this year? If it is, Andy Dalton may be shaking in his boots after Suh's preseason hit.
Stafford shows his stuff
OK, so the Lions win the Super Bowl, right? Well, maybe that's not a real prediction, but we've seen No. 6 seeds perform admirably over the last six years. The Lions are a team that could follow in the Packers' footsteps.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the road will probably prove too tough for them. Having to travel to New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco (or Atlanta) is probably the most treacherous road a No. 6 seed could face. I believe they will upset New Orleans but ultimately lose to the Packers. The Packers are expecting all hands on deck by the kickoff of their game. I think Detroit will prove tenacious, and keep the game close. You may see a shootout along the lines of Week 17, even with Matthews and Woodson back in the lineup.
I'm expecting the Packers to win the Super Bowl. Pretty much everybody is. That may be bad for the Packers. In the last 10 years, only two No. 1 seeds have made the Super Bowl. The Saints and Patriots are the only teams to know that fate this century. Not great news for the Packers.
The Lions are still young. Their youth may show up in mistakes. Unfortunately for them, at this level any mistake is deadly. If they can quash their mistakes and play at the level we've seen in their wins, they can go deep. However, they will surprise many and show they're worthy of being on this stage.
Eventually, the Lions will need to beat the Packers in Green Bay if they want to get to the next level. Whether it's in two weeks or two years, they need that particular win to become the elite team they're building to be.
One positive note for fans of real awesome rivalries: This Lions-Packers rivalry is going to be red hot for years to come. Both teams are built for the long haul. The Bears and Vikings are going to have to keep up, because these two teams are not looking back.
It's a great time to be a Lion fan.