6 Reasons Detroit Lions Should Be Considered NFC North Favorites
Detroit Lions fans can get as drunk off as much Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid as they'd like. Their team is sitting in first place after Week 10 for the first time since 1999.
So drink up and enjoy!
But you might want to practice a little moderation and conserve some energy, because this party is just getting started. The Detroit Lions are set up to win the NFC North.
I know. As Lions fans, you've been hurt before.
However, this season is different. Click through to find out why.
Next Guy Up
The phrase in the slide headline is cheesy, but that doesn't mean it's wrong.
All over the field, the Detroit Lions have had guys sliding into spots and executing well. In some cases, it's been undrafted free agents answering the bell. In others, it's been fifth-year veterans fulfilling expectations.
At no position group has this been more apparent than the pass-catchers.
Obviously, everyone knows the Joseph Fauria story. The former UCLA Bruin slid through the draft and was scooped up by Detroit shortly thereafter. He then used his 6'7" frame to become a red-zone menace. He's been so good that the team felt comfortable jettisoning Tony Scheffler.
But you'd probably be surprised to learn how well Brandon Pettigrew has been playing. After some early season troubles, he's hit his stride, making his presence known in the ground game and catching five balls for 70 yards against the Bears.
Finally, there's Kris Durham. He did post a five-game streak with at least one dropped pass, but he's been pretty reliable picking up the Nate Burleson slack. He isn't the second coming of Brett Perriman, but he provides some necessary depth (and height) on the outside.
Health Is Wealth
Now that Stafford kid has gone from the league punchline to the only NFC North quarterback to start all nine of his team's games to date, and he's in the lead to finish with the most snaps.
Fans already know the importance of the quarterback position. More than likely, you're reading this because you're a Lions fan. And, assuming you're over the age of 18 or so, you know how long it's been since Detroit had a franchise quarterback.
This could prove disastrous for the Packers. They've already lost one winnable game at home against the Eagles and are currently starting Scott Tolzien. Even if he proves as serviceable as Bears backup Josh McCown, it won't matter. So much of the Packers' offensive success is predicated on timing that it's highly unlikely that Tolzien or even the recently signed Matt Flynn will be able to keep the Packers in this race.
If Rodgers isn't back in time for Thanksgiving, there's a decent chance Green Bay will find itself sitting three games behind the Lions with only four weeks left. That's not an uphill battle; that's impossible.
Depth in the Trenches
The biggest reason that Matthew Stafford is healthy while the rest of the division's signal-callers are getting treatment? The surprising depth of the offensive line.
Prior to the season, the offensive line was a mystery that would be breaking in three new starters. Now, the coaching staff has the luxury of two extra starters when everyone is healthy, with former first-stringers Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard likely relegated to supporting roles.
Rookies LaAdrian Waddle and Larry Warford have been running away with the press coverage, and rightfully so. But few are discussing the steady job that Riley Reiff is doing at left tackle. Or, as it's commonly know, the second-most-important position on offense.
It's easy to get caught up discussing the big boys along the defensive front; it's a bit more difficult to elicit conversation about the backups. That's a shame, because guys like Devin Taylor and C.J. Mosley have been taking advantage of their reps by stoning running backs and hurrying quarterbacks.
Detroit entered the 2013 season with a transitionary look along both lines. Nobody could have known that the movement would result in the Lions boasting the deepest set of trench warriors in the league.
Detroit Has the Most Complete Strength
The offensive line and a healthy quarterback are two parts of the most complete strength in the NFC North: the Lions offense.
Detroit has the best wide receiver—and possibly player—in the NFL in Calvin Johnson. When things break down, there's always a chance for a conversion with Johnson on the field.
When you add in the one-two punch of running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell with the continuity provided by Scott Linehan's offensive coordinator tenure, all the makings for a dominant attack are in place.
Time and again, the Lions have had to rely on the offense to find a game-winning score. Whether it was of the hurried variety against the Cowboys or the down-to-business score needed against the Bears, the offense delivered.
Neither the Packers, as previously covered, or Bears have that luxury.
Chicago has many great elements in their offense, but the line is ranked as the second-worst pass-protecting unit in the game, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It doesn't matter if you have Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. When your quarterback suffers through 123 hurries, he won't be able to deliver the ball to them.
The Front Seven Covers Up the Secondary
Every team has a weakness. That's the reality of today's cap-controlled NFL.
So the key is to find a way to mask your biggest flaw. That's where the Lions' defensive line-first philosophy has paid off so well.
Need proof? How about three key plays in the win over the Bears.
How about the 4th-and-1 stop by Rocky McIntosh? The line of scrimmage had already been driven back a full yard by the time running back Michael Bush received the handoff. There's little he can do in that situation.
Or maybe the first time the Lions thwarted the Bears' bid to tie it with a two-point conversion. McCown rolled right and planned on hitting Matt Forte with a quick out. He was covered well by McIntosh, so McCown tried to extend the play.
That doesn't work against Detroit, as the line covered him up for what should have been the game-saving sack. The incidental helmet-to-helmet contact by Willie Young excepted, this was great stuff from the front seven.
Finally, look at the Bears' next two-point conversion attempt. Nick Fairley perfectly executed the one-gap approach where a defensive lineman's objective is to blow through a gap in the line. He timed his rush so well that he was already in the backfield when Forte got the ball, making this an easy play for the big fella.
If you're more of a big-picture person, it's as simple as this: The front seven sets the secondary up for success.
By throttling opposing running games (eighth best), the Lions force offenses into a lot of third-and-long situations. Then, the pass-rushing ability of the linemen gives the quarterback less time to throw routes that require more time, shortening the area the secondary has to cover and creating interception opportunities with forced throws to covered receivers.
This Is a Time-Clock Team
There's a certain attitude surrounding this Lions team that hasn't been apparent before. These players show up to work, punch in and go about their business.
And that's it.
In 2011, the Lions were louder than they were talented. Detroit flaunted the rules and enjoyed playing the part of the villain.
In fact, that attitude got in the way of the team continuing or improving upon its success. The players placed too high of a premium on letting people know they weren't going to be pushed around anymore, instead of worrying about the next play. That mentality was rewarded with 15-yard drive-extending penalties and cost the team a touchdown-reversing review against the Houston Texans.
But there's a different feel to this team.
Instead of wagging a finger in Tom Brady's face over a meaningless preseason game, there's restraint. And while the occasional outburst occurs (looking at you, Fairley), there isn't a universal "they're-picking-on-us" vibe from the players, but an atmosphere of accountability where the player is forced to face the consequences of his actions.
It has also proven true in the team's week-to-week approach. Trap games are a recurring theme each season because franchises can get too caught up in the hype. That's also why it's much more prevalent in college, where the players aren't quite professional or, in most cases, real adults.
Much like its star players, this team is on the other side of 25 now. The fool's errands of "eat[ing] the cheese" and basking in the team's early success are immature mistakes. The humbling 2012 season is in the past, but the lessons learned will help the Lions to their first NFC North crown.