Ranking the Detroit Lions' 5 Toughest Opponents in 2012
The Detroit Lions' 2012 schedule is not as tough as it could be, at least by initial reactions.
Even the game against Carolina looked like a cakewalk at one point, and the Lions had to come back from 17 down to win that one.
So I fully expect to be surprised and have one of these teams turn in an atrocious 2012 season, while one of the teams I left off the list (spoiler: Philadelphia) could explode for a playoff-caliber season.
But based on the way things look right now, these are the five toughest teams the Lions have to go up against in 2012.
5. Atlanta Falcons
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The Falcons are trending down, so there's no telling if they will continue their dynasty of regular season success followed by playoff failure.
The Falcons might be stuck in mediocrity, but the Eagles are just downright volatile.
So the Falcons get the nod here for stability. It also helps that they beat the Lions on their home field last season. It was a closely contested 23-16 loss and one the Lions could easily have come out with, but they didn't, and that turned out to be the difference between the fifth and sixth playoff seed in 2011.
Despite the much-publicized attention given to the Lions' secondary issues, stopping the run is what killed them in this game, as they yielded 122 yards (including a 50-yard run up the middle) to Michael Turner in a game that was as much about offensive possession as it was scoring.
4. Chicago Bears
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I fully expect Bears fans to take issue with this ranking, in part because they are the only fanbase I've seen regularly read other teams' articles to argue with them.
So welcome, Bears fans. Let me explain my logic here.
I have gained some respect for Jay Cutler, based primarily on his gutsy performance on Monday Night Football in a losing effort and the effect his absence had on the rest of the team late last season.
I also have little doubt that the Bears will be better than an 8-8 team next season, given a healthy Cutler and a happy (not holding out) Matt Forte. They could push the 10-win mark under perfect conditions.
That said, the offensive line is still in shambles, key members of the defense are in the declining years of their careers, and there is no guarantee Cutler and Brandon Marshall will be able to co-exist.
I'll grant that Cutler is a better locker-room leader and all-around person than his droopy-faced persona lets on, but I can't say the same about Marshall.
No Lions fan has any ground to stand on right now when talking about Marshall and his history of legal trouble, but you could describe the Lions' entire 2012 offseason of legal trouble in less time than it takes to go over Marshall's rap sheet.
And that was all stuff he did before the Bears bet the farm on him. In a perfect Bears world, Marshall will have a great year reuniting with his old quarterback from Denver and nothing will go wrong, but can anybody really guarantee that will happen?
If it doesn't, isn't the Bears' offense almost exactly the same as the one that had no vertical threat last year, only with the defense a year older and slower, and an increasingly irritated (and worn down) star running back?
3. San Francisco 49ers
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Hey, I used a picture of the Lions and 49ers that has nothing to do with Handshakegate.
You are welcome.
A Sunday Night game in San Francisco will almost undoubtedly be the toughest test the Lions face in the first half of the season, and it comes in Week 2, as the first road test of the Lions' young season.
As surprising as they were, there is little reason to believe the 49ers will take a step back in 2012. Most of their success was a result of head coach Jim Harbaugh's new schemes and strategies, combined with the emergence of a number of young team leaders.
Basically, the players that keyed the 49ers' success last year should play as well or even better next year.
Of course, the same is true of the Lions, which makes this game interesting, especially early in the season. Also interesting? The Lions open the season at home against St. Louis. The 49ers open the season on the road against Green Bay.
It's entirely possible (if not probable) that the 49ers come into this game trying to avoid an 0-2 hole, while the Lions try to avoid obtaining their first loss at the hands of the 49ers for the second straight year. Just some storylines to keep an eye on.
Even if those don't come to fruition, this should be a fun game to watch, as it pits strength against strength. The Lions' explosive offense will take on the 49ers' rock-solid defense, and we'll see who wins.
Meanwhile, the 49ers used draft picks to strengthen their anemic offense, while the Lions went on a run to beef up the maligned defense.
This should be as close to a 50/50 matchup as we get all season.
2. Houston Texans
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The big story here? The return of Shaun Cody, of course.
Not only do the Lions face one of the most potent offenses in football in 2012, they face it on Thanksgiving.
There was a time when the Lions were nigh unbeatable on Thanksgiving. Now, they have a losing streak long enough for someone to make up a curse for it (I'm waiting).
There was also a time that Calvin Johnson was the second-best wide receiver in football named "Johnson." If everybody is healthy, we might get to see a display of the two most potent QB-WR combos in the game today, comprised of two quarterbacks named Matt and two wideouts named Johnson.
The Houston Texans are retooling a bit with the loss of stud pass-rusher Mario Williams to the Bills, but they struck pay dirt last year with J.J. Watt and have quietly built one of the better all-around defenses in the game.
Throw Arian Foster into that mix, and you have a team talented enough to win a playoff game with T.J. Yates at quarterback.
Like the Bears, health is really the biggest thing that held the Texans back from bigger and better things in 2011. Unlike the Bears, the Texans are built on talented young players who should play even better football in 2012 than they were on track for in 2011.
1. Green Bay Packers
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The Green Bay Packers won as many playoff games as the Lions did last year, and fewer than two teams lower than them on this list.
So what? They were an unstoppable juggernaut for the entirety of the regular season. They just happened to get caught by the Giants getting hot at the right time (again).
The Packers have the best quarterback in the league, an offense built to accommodate him and a good mix of young stars and talented veterans.
The defense was a weakness last year, but they've addressed it this offseason via the draft, and if the Packers didn't draft as well as they do, they wouldn't have drafted the best quarterback in the league with the 24th overall pick. Instead, they would be drafting Brandon Weeden, a rookie quarterback two months younger than Aaron Rodgers, with the 22nd overall pick.
The point is, the Packers were good last year, they lost effectively nothing from their team and they added a bunch of draft picks that will probably work out.
The Lions stayed with the Packers in both their eventual losses last season, but the Lions are a good football team. They're supposed to not get blown out by other good teams. There's no moral victory there.
Instead, they can try matching the Packers blow-for-blow by avoiding post-play penalties that get key defensive players tossed and suspended.
I'm not saying the Lions can win for sure if they play clean. The Packers are a juggernaut. But the team absolutely has a shot, if they allow themselves to take it.