Last year the Lions lost three games at home, three on the road, and still managed to earn a wild-card slot in the playoffs. This year a 10-6 record might not be good enough to guarantee a return trip.
To get back to the playoffs, the Lions have to own Ford Field from now on. Detroit will not only have to win five road games again this season, it'll also have to win at least one additional home game—a very big one.
The Lions' critical must-win game this season will be against Green Bay during their Week 11 matchup at Ford Field.
If the Lions defeat the Packers on November 18th, Detroit will have a very good chance to make the playoffs again and could wear the NFC North crown this year if the stars align favorably.
The key prediction in this article is that the Lions have to beat Green Bay on Ford Field and win at least 11 games to have a decent shot at returning to the playoffs and maybe winning a division title.
Read on and discover how the 2012 schedule favors the Lions despite a very early bye week. Enjoy the embedded videos.
Breaking Down the 2012 Season into Four-Game Blocks
A good way to track the Lions' progress this year is to break down the 16-game regular season into four mini-seasons. If the Lions average three wins in each four-game block and beat the Packers during Week 11, they'll be in the playoffs again and could end up at the top of the NFC North.
(H: Home game; A: Away)
The Rams are first up during this opening stretch. Under new head coach Jeff Fisher, St. Louis will play tougher this year than the 2-14 team they were last season—but not tough enough to beat the Lions on Ford Field the opening game of the regular season.
This will be the first head coach matchup between Jim Schwartz and Fisher, his former Tennessee Titans mentor. Later in the season, the Rams will begin to show some promise. This game should be a lock for the Lions.
The Lions travel next to San Francisco for a nationally televised rematch against the 49ers. Last season the 49ers went 13-3 and won the NFC West division. They beat the Detroit in a bitterly fought 25-19 contest on Ford Field, during Week 6.
When these two teams last met, the 49ers ran the ball for over 200 yards and sacked Matt Stafford five times.
They'll try to do it again.
San Francisco added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to its roster this season to try to boost its passing game above last year's 29th-place ranking. However, Alex Smith remains its starting quarterback.
This will be an early test of how well Detroit's linebacker corps has gelled and how stout the O-line's pass protection will be early on in what may be its final season playing together as a starting unit.
Titans and Vikings
The Titans are next up on the road, followed by the Vikings at home. The real danger here is taking either team for granted. The Lions should easily outscore both clubs and fend off any last-quarter rally by either of them.
The Lions should be 4-0 before their Week 5 bye.
After their bye the Lions face off against the Eagles, Bears and Seahawks—three teams with middle-of-the-pack records last year. Detroit also plays the 5-11 Jaguars in this block.
None of these teams made it to the postseason in 2011, but Philly, Chicago and Seattle are hungrier this year and will be dangerous.
The Lions have to avoid back-to-back road losses during this stretch just before they cross the halfway point of the regular season.
Will the Lions face Michael Vick during Week 6 (and does it really matter)?
Vick played in 13 games last season and lost six of them. He threw for only 18 touchdowns and scrambled for a single running score.
After Philly's self-proclaimed "Dream Team" self-destructed last year despite have a ton of very talented offensive players, the Eagles used four of their first five draft picks this year to beef up their defense.
It's interesting that Philly did use its third-round draft pick to add Nick Foles to a quarterback stable that includes Vick, Trent Edwards and Mike Kafka. Detroit should take the Eagles very seriously, but recognize that Philly has a bit of a quarterback problem—its quarterback and ours.
After Matt Stafford's breakout 2011 season, the Eagles have 41 good reasons to fear Matt Stafford—one for each touchdown pass he threw during the regular season.
Other than at the quarterback position, the Eagles match up pretty well against the Lions on both sides of the ball.
The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins this one.
Mike Martz is gone and Jay Cutler has been reunited with Brandon Marshall, his favorite Denver wideout. But oddly, Chicago hasn't made a move yet this offseason to bolster its porous offensive line—leaving Cutler potentially vulnerable again.
Maybe Lovie Smith figures that with Martz out of the picture, and Cutler not dropping back seven steps so often, he won't get pressured as much.
We'll see about that.
The first matchup between the Bears and Lions in 2011 was a nationally televised Monday night game that Detroit won 24-13. The Lions actually out-rushed Chicago on this occasion, putting up 181 yards on the ground to the Bears' 122 yards. They also sacked Cutler three times.
In its second go-around in 2011, pretty much the only positive stats Detroit put up involved limiting the Bears to 109 rushing yards and sacking Cutler twice.
Detroit running backs gained fewer than half the rushing yardage they did in its first matchup. Matt Stafford passed for 329 yards but also threw four interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns.
Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson each lost fumbles. To add insult to injury, Stefan Logan fumbled and lost the ball twice on kickoffs, Devin Hester ran a punt back for a touchdown and Robbie Gould added three field goals.
The Lions lost 37-13.
If Detroit doesn't turn the ball over, they beat the Bears Week 10 last year and will beat them twice this year. Their first contest in 2012 will be a very important nationally televised prime-time divisional contest Week 7 at Soldier Field.
Watching the Lions take down both the 49ers and Bears on prime-time TV would be a big thrill for Detroit fans. It would also confirm that the Lions are legitimate Super Bowl contenders this year.
Seattle is unsettled at the quarterback position going into this season. Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson will each lose valuable first-unit preseason snaps to each other until one of them comes out on top.
With help from a first-rate receiving corps going up against an injury-riddled patchwork secondary, Flynn—a Packer last year—burned Detroit in Week 17 for six touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Flynn or Jackson, Seattle doesn't have an elite group of receivers.
They have Sydney Rice, Golden Tate and ex-Lion Mike Williams.
However, the Seahawks do have Marshawn Lynch, who gained over 1,200 yards on the ground last season and averaged 4.2 yards per touch. Seattle also has a pretty solid pass defense, but only a so-so run defense.
If Leshoure or Smith can move the chains against Seattle, Detroit wins this game.
Although the Jaguars improved this offseason by adding wide receiver Justin Blackmon and talented edge-rusher Andre Branch, they're still a couple of seasons away. The Lions win another road game.
After eight games, the Lions should be no worse than 6-2 or 7-1.
This is the first block of games in which Detroit plays two very good teams—Green Bay and Houston—back-to-back.
Fortunately for the Lions both games are at home, and the Thanksgiving Day contest against Houston will be nationally televised.
Jim Schwartz has lost two straight games to Green Bay. Three out of the last four times these teams met, the games were decided by four points or less.
The Lions put up 75 points against Green Bay during the last two seasons. Detroit can score on the Packers. The next step is to stop the Packers from putting up a few more points more a game than we do.
The key to winning this critical first matchup is to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field as much as possible and apply constant pressure on him when he is.
If the Lions' deep and powerful front-four rotation forces Rodgers to hand the ball off and throw underneath all game long, it will be easier for Detroit's linebackers to stuff the run and cover short. It will also take some pressure off of our cornerbacks.
The only team to beat the Packers during the regular season last year was Kansas City, at Arrowhead Stadium, 19-14. The Chiefs ran at the Packers 39 times and maintained possession of the ball 13 minutes longer than Green Bay—keeping Rodgers off the field.
The Lions pack more defensive front-four heat than the Chiefs.
If Detroit's D-line is in Rodger's face all day and the running backs help move the chains down the field, Stafford's arm will do the rest. Jim Schwartz wins his first game over Green Bay since Week 14, 2010.
Like the Packers, the Texans will be a formidable opponent for the Lions. Houston went all the way to the divisional playoffs last year before losing 20-13 to Baltimore.
Detroit has Calvin Johnson; Houston has Andre Johnson. The Lions have Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure; the Texans have Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Houston also had the second-best overall defense in the league last year.
Detroit gained 4,814 yards in the air during the regular season to Houston's 3,506 yards. The Texans rushed for 2,448 yards to the Lions' 1,523 yards.
Once again, Detroit's defense will have to step up big to stop a potent running game.
If it does, Matt Stafford will win the aerial duel with Matt Schaub and Detroit will squeak out a win. Schaub simply doesn't have as many talented weapons to throw to as Stafford does.
Vikings and Colts
The first and last games in this block against the Vikings and Colts should result in an additional road victory and home win for the Lions.
Twelve games into the season, Detroit's record should be no worse than 9-3.
The Lions finish out the season against four very dangerous teams. The Sunday night game against the Packers at Lambeau Field, and the Week 16 Saturday night game at Ford Field against the Falcons will be nationally televised.
By this point in the season the Lions should have already won at least four away and five home games. If they beat the Packers during Week 11, and are no worse off than 9-3 at this point, they'll have a chance to win the division even if Green Bay wins the Week 14 rematch at Lambeau.
If the Lions somehow lose both games to the Packers again, back-to-back wins on Ford Field over Atlanta and the Bears, to close out the regular season, would probably secure Detroit an NFC wild-card slot.
Last year the Falcons beat the Lions on Ford Field, 23-16.
Detroit's defense handed Atlanta seven first downs on penalties. Matt Stafford completed less than 50 percent of his passes and Detroit managed to move the chains on only one of a dozen third-down conversion attempts.
Just as they did in their second matchup against Chicago, the Lions played an awful game against Atlanta last year. It's unlikely that Detroit will play badly enough to lose to the Falcons at home again this season, especially during a prime-time game.
Arizona was one of eight teams last year to finish the season 8-8. Yes, Arizona still has Larry Fitzgerald and they added Michael Floyd in the draft. And no, it's not clear yet whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will be throwing to them.
Last season the Cardinals ranked 19th in total offense while Detroit ranked fifth. Arizona hasn't done much to improve its offense so far this offseason. This game will be a shootout in front of a home crowd at Ford Field that Arizona will not win.
The Lions finish out the season with a minimum of 11 wins.
Making a Second Consecutive Postseason Run at the Lombardi Trophy
Closing out the regular season 11-5 should get Detroit back into the playoffs.
Even better, finishing with a 12-4 record at the top of a very tough division would send the entire league a powerful message: The Lions are now masters of their own house and formidable road warriors.
And they're only going to get better.
With a little luck, a healthier backfield and a lot fewer penalties, the Lions might even win the Super Bowl in 2012.
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