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Why the Detroit Lions May Be the Scariest Team in the NFC

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 27: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions tries to outrun the tackle of Ernie Sims #59 of the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at Ford Field on October 27, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Brandon AlisogluCorrespondent INovember 7, 2013

The Detroit Lions didn't burst out of the gates of the 2013 NFL season, but they did keep a steady enough pace to find themselves locked into a first-place tie. 

The Lions capped the first half of the season with a dramatic last-second win over the Dallas Cowboys. For a team that needed a signature win, the Sunday heading into the bye week was just what they needed. 

Forget the if-the-season-ended-today scenarios. This team is headed for the playoffs (excepting the obvious caveat of a dramatic injury). 

And here's why.

 

Yes, the Schedule is Nice

Every analyst has hammered it home when discussing why the Lions could win the NFC North: The Lions have an easy schedule. You can't watch a television channel, listen to a radio station or surf a website without seeing it. And they're all completely correct in their assertion.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: Tamba Hali #91 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates as he scores the game-winning touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Ri
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Detroit's opponents are sporting a rather unhealthy winning percentage, having put up a 22-43 record. It's so poor that the combined point differential of those teams is negative-215. 

And they don't even play the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But only discussing Detroit's schedule when contemplating their playoff possibilities is "lazy" in the same manner as those knocking Kansas City, as B/R NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey explained.

Frankly, it's disrespectful, because it completely ignores how good this team is. So now that we have dispensed with the obvious, let's dig a little deeper. 

 

Matthew Stafford is a Bona Fide Franchise Quarterback

Too much is made of whether a quarterback is elite or not. Unfortunately, I'm only going to add to the noise.

Matthew Stafford is ascending toward the upper echelon of quarterbacks.

It'd be simple to point to his late-game heroics against the Dallas Cowboys. The locally famous fake-spike touchdown demonstrated an intelligence that the consistent greats possess.

However, extrapolations based on one drive aren't necessary. Stafford's performance is verified by just about every stat.

He ranks in the top 10 of just about every important statistical category, and is ranked as the fifth-best quarterback despite dealing with the second-most drops (30) in the league. 

How Matthew Stafford Stacks Up
CategoryStatisticRank
Touchdowns16T-5th
Yards2,6173rd
Rating94.87th
According to espn.com

That's impressive.

Those basic statistics provide the structure, but the real devil is in the details. Stafford has been extremely decisive, which shows his great grasp of the offense. He's getting the ball out in a ridiculous 2.39 seconds, leading to a league-low 10 sacks. That's what happens when you work with the same offensive coordinator for three years. Continuity breeds consistency.

Lastly, he gets the benefit of throwing to arguably the best player in the NFL.

Calvin Johnson is in that Adrian Peterson category of excellence, and B/R Lead NFL writer Matt Bowen did a great job of breaking him down. In short, he's an uber-talented receiver who creates a matchup problem regardless of who he is facing and he has the skills to take advantage.

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 27: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions celebrates with teammate Calvin Johnson #81 after a first quarter touchdown the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Ford Field on October 27, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Hali
Leon Halip/Getty Images

If anyone is capable of duplicating (or besting) Anquan Boldin's incredible playoff run from last year, it's Megatron.

So the Lions boast a burgeoning superstar quarterback to pair with an already established All-Pro wide receiver. Just the mere mention of Reggie Bush after all of this should bring a tear to any offensive aficionado's eye. 

 

Offensive Line Depth

Offensive tackle Corey Hilliard replaced Jason Fox in the season opener, but the line hasn't missed a beat. In fact, the only two negative grades among the now "regular starters" are owned by guard Rob Sims and Hilliard, who check in at a just-below-average -1.3.

However, the key to everything is the depth the Lions have stumbled upon.

Hilliard was a known commodity entering the season. He's a solid plug-and-play guy who can perform at multiple positions. His performance, while crucial, isn't completely unexpected.

The most surprising find has been undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle.

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 06:  Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions calls a play at the line during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on October 6, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

He was pressed into duty when the substituting Hilliard went down. As fellow B/R writer Jeff Risdon broke down beautifully, Waddle demonstrated the skills necessary to stay in the lineup after just one game. 

So how did the young man respond? By posting the best single-game grade (3.7) of any Detroit offensive linemen this year. 

When Fox comes back healthy, the Lions will have the versatile Hilliard ready to step in anywhere and at least one backup tackle that can fill in at a competent level.

That's a luxury few teams have.

 

The biggest weakness is improving

But every team does have a weakness. The salary cap ensures that one team can't horde enough assets to address every possible scenario. That's why the NFL is so unpredictable.

For Detroit, it's been the secondary. The lowlight of the season came against the Bengals, when the defensive backs gave up three touchdowns to Andy Dalton, leading to a heart-wrenching loss. 

However, the back line of defense is getting better, and a lot of it has to do with the growth and management of the young contributors. 

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 08: Jerome Simpson #81 of the Minnesota Vikings can't come up with a second quarter pass while being hit by Darius Slay #30 of the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on September 8, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. DeAndre Levy #54 intercepted
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Giving essentially two rookies (Bill Bentley didn't play last year) key snaps was going to cause some growing pains, but the grades indicate that the investment might be paying off. Both Bentley and Darius Slay have elevated their game to a collective just-above-average 1.7 over the past month. 

Thankfully, that's all due to Rashean Mathis. He hasn't been stellar, but he's passable. And with safeties Loius Delmas (2.2) and Glover Quin (2.7) playing solid ball, that's the makings of OK. 

Playing OK at Detroit's weakest positions is good enough. If the front seven can continue to keep the running game under control and limit big plays, that will set up long third down situations, and even the worst secondary can't botch that too terribly.

Remember the Saints' and Colts' past championships? Those teams boasted opportunistic defenses bolstered by excellent offenses.

There's no reason this Detroit team can't replicate that success.

 

All grades, stats and ranking are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, and require an subscription. 

Brandon Alisoglu has been covering the Detroit Lions for two years. He has been published at Yahoo!, Bleacher Report, CNN and other websites. He also co-hosts a podcast called Lions Central Radio with Nick Kostora that can be found on ITunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter for more football talk.

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