A Detroit Lions Fan's Guide to Watching the 2013 NFL Playoffs
Here we are again. The Detroit Lions are done with football by January, and Lions fans are more excited about the NFL Draft than they were about December football.
It has been a disastrous season, and when it finally ended, it was merciful just to see the losing streak stop for a while.
We'll spend about eight months talking about how to fix this team, but we don't have to start just yet. For now, we have the playoffs. And since the Lions are not actually in the playoffs, some Lions fans may not have much investment in the teams left standing.
That said, if you're like me, years of playoff futility forced you to adopt a secondary rooting interest. But assuming that's not true, there's another month of football left, and it simply won't do to miss it.
So, Lions fans, here is my handy guide to the postseason from the perspective you're comfortable with. To ensure I keep my biases (mostly) out of it, I will give you reasons to root for and against each team, and then you can make the call.
Alternatively, if you really can't wait for the Lions' rebuilding phase, I've got that covered, too, with some insight on impending free agents on each playoff team that could be a fit in Detroit.
So whatever your outlook is, this guide's got you covered, team-by-team. So hopefully you can enjoy the playoffs with a rooting interest, and not feel too bad about the way the season turned out.
Maybe. Just give it a shot.
Position: AFC No. 6 Seed
Game Info: @ Texans
Saturday Jan. 5, 4:30 pm ET, on NBC
Root for them because: Lions fans ought to appreciate any team's rags-to-riches story, and the fact is a team popularly known as the "Bungles" is in the playoffs for the second straight year.
I don't know, it's kind of nice to see that just a few hours down I-75, there's a team that found success basing their offense around the connection between their young quarterback and primary wide receiver.
It's also worth watching to see why that works. The Bengals have a functional offense primarily because of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, but they have a good team because they can play stifling defense. In a way, the Bengals are a more polished version of what the Lions were aiming for.
Seeing them go deep in the playoffs could serve as justification that the Lions' building plan might be alright.
Root against them because: Realistically, how could any red-blooded Detroit sports fan truly support a team from Ohio? I mean, Detroit teams don't really play teams from Cincinnati that often, so there's no big rivalry.
But still. Ohio.
And if you need more reason than that, just remember that Pacman Jones plays for this team.
Players to watch: The Bengals have plenty of talented players heading to free agency in the offseason, most notably emerging pass-rush specialist Michael Johnson.
But closer to the Lions' price range might be veteran cornerbacks Terence Newman and Nate Clements.
Also available are Brandon Tate and Bernard Scott, part-time offensive weapons with proven return ability.
Position: NFC No. 6 Seed
Game Info: @ Packers
Saturday Jan. 5, 8 pm ET, on NBC
Root for them because: Despite everything he has done to the Lions over the years, how can you not appreciate the year Adrian Peterson is having?
He may not have broken the record, but he did run his team right into the playoffs, and he didn't even realize he had missed the record until his post-game interviewer told him.
Peterson blew out his knee just over a year ago, and not only did he rebound from the injury, he just went on to have the second-best year for a running back in league history. His performance lifted this team to a playoff spot when nobody else thought the Vikings would finish higher than fourth in the division.
Peterson is a class act, and it's hard not to respect the kind of effort and dedication Peterson put in to make this season possible. His 2012 season is truly exemplary of what the NFL is all about.
Also, the Vikings' win knocked the Bears out of the playoffs, which is always fun. And a win this weekend would take care of the Packers, as well.
Root against them because: They're the Vikings. No matter what I can say about an individual player, they're still a hated division rival.
Worse still, they're a hated rival that beat the Lions twice this year, in convincing fashion.
Also, the Vikings' playoff run, which kept the Bears on the outside looking in, is arguably the reason the Bears fired Lovie Smith. This will ostensibly make the Bears better in the long run, and it's all the Vikings' fault. Just keep that in mind when you watch them in the playoffs.
Players to watch: I want you to wrap your head around this for a moment. Set to enter free agency from the Vikings this spring is Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton.
That's former Lion, Matt Millen fifth-round pick Jerome Felton.
So there's that, if the Lions decide they want to return to keep a fullback on the roster. Really, Felton wasn't a bad player, the Lions just didn't want to keep a true fullback on the roster.
And he deserves this run with the Vikings, since he had to deal with Lions in 2008 and the Colts in 2011, with both his teams making the playoffs the year after he left.
But the Lions likely aren't looking Felton's way, and he should be looking to stay, since lead blocking for Peterson seems to have been good for his career.
Felton aside, the Lions might consider taking a flier on safety Jamarca Sanford, who has played big minutes for the Vikings all year and will not likely command a major price tag.
Position: AFC No. 5 Seed
Game Info: @ Ravens
Sunday Jan. 6, 1 pm ET, on CBS
Root for them because: Forget the turnaround story and Andrew Luck and all that business.
Root for the Colts because Chuck Pagano is an inspiration.
Let's recap. The Colts very nearly go 0-16, bring in a new head coach and quarterback, start the 2012 season with reasonable success, and beat the Packers.
Then Pagano is diagnosed with leukemia, Bruce Arians takes over as interim head coach, and the team goes on an improbable playoff run, under the rallying cry "Chuck Strong."
Pagano re-joined the team last week with a win over the Houston Texans, and with his leukemia in remission, he seems poised to continue with the team throughout the playoffs.
It's pretty easy to justify rooting for the team coached by a cancer survivor, is all I'm saying.
Root against them because: At some point, it became okay to start a rookie quarterback in the NFL.
But is it really okay for a rookie quarterback to win the Super Bowl? It might have to be, since there are three currently in the playoffs.
But still, something just doesn't sit right about a kid coming straight out of college to win a Super Bowl.
Also, if there are any Peyton Manning fans out there reading this, understand that Luck winning a Super Bowl in his rookie year with the Colts severely diminishes Manning's limited postseason accomplishments in his decade there.
Though realistically, that might be more reason to root for the Colts, depending on how you feel about Manning.
Players to watch: Not many, considering that most of the major turnover on this team came last year. This team is made up mostly of talented young players who are in for the long haul, and veterans who aren't likely to provide an upgrade at any position.
Dwight Freeney is the biggest name likely to hit free agency, but he has been so good for so long, he's likely to pull Julius Peppers-like money this offseason, and the Lions simply can't afford that.
Position: NFC No. 5 Seed
Game Info: @ Redskins
Sunday Jan. 6, 4:30 pm ET, on Fox
Root for them because: Russell Wilson seems like a nice kid, but he's no less a rookie than Andrew Luck, and so it's hard to justify seeing a rookie quarterback winning the Super Bowl.
Unless that's something you're interested in seeing, anyway.
But there's a far more selfish reason for the Lions to root for the Seahawks. The Lions actually beat the Seahawks this year, and so the further the Seahawks go, the better that win looks for the Lions.
It's a tiny, petty little thing, but in a season with very little in the way of silver lining, it might be something worth clinging to.
Root against them because: How can you really support a team run by Pete Carroll?
This is the guy who put half of the USC football team on the school's payroll, and then bolted for the NFL when he was discovered, escaping any responsibility. And in the midst of that, he published a motivational book about winning, which was somehow not called "Cheat, Duh."
Now, to be fair, Carroll appears to have put together a pretty solid operation in Seattle, and there aren't any signs of nefarious activities (it's amazing how that works in a league with actual oversight).
But still, Carroll isn't exactly a warm, fuzzy personality, and it's hard to root for him knowing the path he took to the NFL.
Also, those uniforms are a travesty. Just saying.
Players to watch: Cornerback Marcus Trufant has quietly been a pretty good player for a pretty long time.
He won't be the kind of player who transforms the Lions' secondary, but he could provide quality veteran depth in a unit likely to be full of second-year players next year.
Also, DT Alan Branch is a space-eating lineman who could serve as a replacement for Corey Williams or Sammie Hill, assuming that one or both are gone next season.
Position: AFC No. 4 Seed
Game Info: vs. Colts
Sunday Jan. 6, 1 pm ET, on CBS
Root for them because: I don't know, and I don't have much interest in the Ravens in general, nor do I have a good reason for other Lions fans to feel any differently.
It's entirely possible that this is the last best chance for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to win another Super Bowl, if that means anything to you. And Ray Rice is a pretty likable guy, so there's that.
This is a veteran team that has been close for years, and so if they do win it all, at least we can say they've paid their dues.
Root against them because: I don't know, maybe you're just sick of Harbaughs. Or you're not a particular fan of Ray Lewis or Ed Reed.
Realistically, there's not much reason to root for or against the Ravens. For most Lions fans, they're a solid "meh." But they do stand in the way of the Colts, so if you're jumping on the "Chuck Strong" bandwagon, these are your natural enemies.
Otherwise...eh, whatever. They're the Ravens. Take them or leave them.
Players to watch: It will be fun to watch Joe Flacco, if for no other reason than the simple fact that his performance in the postseason very likely will determine whether he remains with the Ravens next year.
But more relevant to the Lions from a personnel standpoint is cornerback Cary Williams, who has quietly been a leader for the Ravens' secondary in his fifth professional season.
Williams has posted 75 tackles and four interceptions this year, including a pick-six, and he's not exactly a household name. If the Ravens let him go and the Lions manage to afford him, he could be a fine addition to the Lions' secondary, especially if the Lions are unable to retain Chris Houston.
Position: NFC No. 4 Seed
Game Info: vs. Seahawks
Sunday Jan. 6, 4:30 pm ET, on Fox
Root for them because: Robert Griffin III is a likeable kid, albeit another rookie.
But a more pleasant way to look at the Washington Redskins this year is as perhaps the least unpleasant team in the NFC East this year.
In other words, the Redskins are the team that ensured that the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys did not make the playoffs this year.
Regardless of how you feel about the Redskins themselves, it's nice to see a team other than the defending champ Giants, annually overrated Cowboys, and big price tag Eagles represent the NFC East.
Also, London Fletcher has been one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL for years. He deserves a Super Bowl ring to add to what should be a Hall-of-Fame career.
Root against them because: I'll hold with the line about rookie quarterbacks, though it's hard to argue with Griffin's charisma.
That said, it's hard to root for any team put together under Dan Snyder, who is by all accounts one of the least likable people in the league.
Also, the Lions have bad organizational memories of the Redskins in the playoffs. The Redskins are responsible for beating the Lions in their deepest playoff run in 1991, and also in their second-most recent playoff run in 1999.
Granted, the Redskins also helped the Lions end their historic losing streak in 2009, so maybe they're even.
Players to watch: It's not exactly typical to watch an interior offensive lineman in the playoffs, but G/C Kory Lichtensteiger has played solid football for the Redskins this year.
The Lions should be looking to improve their interior line, or at least to get younger there.
Lichtensteiger will be entering only his fourth season, and he may not be the answer to the Lions' problems, but a starter on a playoff team that leads the league in rushing yards doesn't sound like a bad player to take a flier on.
They might also take a look at Madieu Williams as a potential veteran upgrade at safety.
Position: AFC No. 3 Seed
Game Info: vs. Bengals
Saturday Jan. 5, 4:30 pm ET, on NBC
Root for them because: It's a long-suffering (as in, since its inception) franchise finally finding a taste of consistent success. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?
No? That's because the Texans are where the Lions want to be. There may be no team more appropriate for Lions fans to live vicariously through this postseason.
Especially considering how much of their offense is predicated on a quarterback named Matt and a receiver named Johnson.
Root against them because: Thanksgiving. Bitter memories.
It's not the Texans' fault that Jim Schwartz threw a seven-point challenge flag in this game, but that doesn't mean Lions fans have to remember it fondly.
Also, if the Texans make the Super Bowl this year, it will mean they did in about 10 years what the Lions still haven't. And then the short list of teams to never make the Super Bowl will shorten, and continue to include the Lions.
Players to watch: The Lions might hesitate to take a linebacker from a 3-4 scheme, but Connor Barwin and Bradie James will both be free agents after this season.
The Lions may well be looking for replacements for DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant after this season, so if either of these guys perform well in space, they might get a look.
Also, if G Antoine Caldwell returns to action in the postseason, he'll be worth looking at as a potential upgrade to the Lions' interior line.
Green Bay Packers
Position: NFC No. 3 Seed
Game Info: vs. Vikings
Saturday Jan. 5, 8 pm ET, on NBC
Root for them because: Hate them or revile them, it's hard not to respect the way the Packers run their organization.
They win, and they it generally without spending in free agency or springing for high draft picks. That's what the Lions are trying to accomplish in their own organization, and what most organizations strive for.
Also, the Packers having success is proof that a team can succeed with a sub-par running game and defense. So there's hope.
Also, if you happen to dislike the Vikings more than the Packers, then you can at least root for them for one game.
Root against them because: If I have to list off reasons for you to root against the Green Bay Packers, welcome to being a Detroit Lions fan, and may I say you chose an awfully strange time to join.
Players to watch: Not many, realistically. That's part of what's so frustrating about the Packers. They don't generally let any talent go.
Most will talk about the likely departure of Greg Jennings, and while that is a major loss for the Packers, he's certain to be out of the Lions' price range, especially since he'll be looking for No. 1 receiver money and the Lions already have that tied up in Calvin Johnson.
New England Patriots
Position: AFC No. 2 Seed
Game Info: vs. highest advancing seed
Sunday Jan. 13 at 4:30 pm ET, on CBS
Root for them because: Same as the Packers, the Patriots are an exemplary organization
I mean, the Lions just hung a banner in the rafters for making a one-and-done playoff appearance in 2011. The Patriots made the Super Bowl and the season was a disappointment.
Love them or hate them, you have to respect them. Most teams wish they were a fraction as well-run as the Patriots, and when they're on, they're one of the most fun teams to watch in the NFL.
This organization has been too good for too long to not have won a Super Bowl since 2004. They're due.
Root against them because: Part of being an organization that functions like a well-oiled machine entails having all the personality of a well-oiled machine.
The Patriots are not exactly known for their media presence or bubbly personalities. They're all business, starting right at the top with frowner extraordinaire Bill Belichick.
That demeanor, in addition to all the media attention Tom Brady gets, turns some people off. If you're not one of those people, you might just be tired of seeing the Patriots in the playoffs. If you're looking for new blood in the playoffs, you're not looking for the Pats.
Players to watch: Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman are both offensive utility men with return ability.
Both are poised to enter free agency, though it's unlikely the Patriots let them get than far.
But if they do, Woodhead could take over as the Lions' third-down back, Edelman could step in as a long-missing slot receiver threat, and both would be an upgrade over anybody the Lions put in on kick returns this year.
Wes Welker is also looking at a fresh contract in free agency, but don't expect the Lions to even touch the kind of money Welker will command.
San Francisco 49ers
Position: NFC No. 2 Seed
Game Info: vs. highest advancing seed
Saturday Jan. 12 at 8 pm ET on Fox
Root for them because: They're an old-school football team. They're in-your-face with the run game and defense, and they'll ride it as far as they're able to.
With as pass-happy as the league is these days, it's more than a little refreshing to see a team have success via sheer power. They terrorize quarterbacks as well as any unit in the NFL, and it's fun, especially when they get set loose against a quarterback you don't like.
Also, Colin Kaepernick is fun to watch, isn't he?
Root against them because: You might have a permanently tarnished image of Jim Harbaugh as a result of Handshake-Gate.
Or you might think Harbaugh is a smug little so-and-so, and not especially likable even before he had his run-in with the Lions. That doesn't mean he's not a good coach, but you don't have to like him.
In other news, this team has Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree among their current receivers. It's a mystery to me how this team even functions with that much—let's call it "personality"—at receiver. Credit is due for that, but again, not likability.
Players to watch: Ted Ginn Jr. is a talented return man and one the Lions might consider taking a look at in the offseason.
The big problem with Ginn is that he can't reliably play receiver. He still fields passes like he has bricks for hands, and I'm not certain that the Lions will be able to reform that.
But the Lions will certainly be looking for a new player to handle return duties, as there is almost no chance of the Lions retaining Stefan Logan next year. If the Lions are comfortable with hiring another guy whose only job is returning kicks, Ginn is worth a look.
Position: AFC No. 1 Seed
Game Info: vs. lowest advancing seed
Saturday Jan. 12 at 4:30 pm ET, on CBS
Root for them because: Peyton Manning has given us a return to sanity. Every game the Broncos win with him at the helm gives a little more perspective into why the Broncos were so successful last year: the talent level on this team is phenomenal.
As it turns out, the Broncos really were only about one piece away last year, and that one piece was a quarterback.
Everything has come together for the Broncos this year. Rushing, passing, defense, everything is operating at a high level, and the Broncos enter the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak as a result. I mean, you know things are going well when Knowshon Moreno is producing.
This is ultimately the easiest team to bandwagon right now. They're rolling, and they're fun to watch. The question now is how Mile High Stadium in January will affect Manning's ability to sling it around. And will he be able to do in his first year in Denver what he could only do once in over a decade as a Colt?
Root against them because: Notice how many times I just mentioned Manning is just a few lines there? That's what the entire sports media is going to be like until the Broncos lose.
Manning is a great quarterback, and he deserves a lot of attention for his accomplishments. But seriously, it gets tiring at times. I mean, sometimes it's just that the Denver defense is good, not that they made that play because they're rested from Manning allowing them to stay off the field.
But still, if you have to have a quarterback's accomplishments shoved down your throat all postseason, at least it's someone who is actually good at the position. Manning has had an MVP-caliber year (and also the award should belong to Adrian Peterson tangent alert).
Players to watch: Fifth-year cornerback Tracy Porter is another option the Lions could explore to bolster their secondary with quality depth (or better yet, a solid starter).
Porter suffered a concussion in Week 16, but could return to play with a bye week to recover.
Porter, like many of the players I've listed, isn't a silver-bullet answer to any of the Lions problems, but he could be a significant upgrade at the right price. At the very least, he's worth keeping an eye on as he battles alongside the incomparable Champ Bailey.
Position: NFC No. 1 Seed
Game Info: vs. lowest advancing seed
Sunday Jan. 13 at 1 pm ET on FOX
Root for them because: They've got to be due.
How many times have they locked up the NFC's top seed? A bye week? The NFC South?
And how often does it result in them being completely blown out of the gym the moment they take the field?
Every time, that's how often. This is a team that has paid its dues, has pieces in place, and finally needs to put it together. This team doesn't scare anybody in the playoffs, and it's time they do something to change that, right?
Root against them because: You might delight in a certain amount of schadenfreude, seeing the NFC's top team fall in their first game, every single time.
I mean, it's kind of uncanny. The Falcons look like an absolute death machine, just a methodical team with no weaknesses, and they end up getting dismantled in the playoffs regardless.
Every. Single. Year.
And if that happens, then so be it. This is a team that has beaten the Lions at Ford Field in consecutive years. That's a recipe for either respect or hatred. Take your pick.
Players to watch: Another veteran secondary player, Chris Hope has played all 16 games for the Falcons at safety this year, and while he may not be a viable starting option for the Lions, he's a savvy veteran with plenty to teach.
Other than that, we've got... hmmm, Tim Toone? Luke McCown? Robert McClain, maybe?
Yeah, actually pretty slim pickings here. Maybe you just watch this game for fun, not scouting.