There is little question that the Detroit Lions are talented enough to qualify for the NFC playoffs as a division champion.
Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh make up a core four that could go head-to-head with any other in the NFC North, especially given the injuries plaguing the two teams trailing Detroit in the division standings.
However, talent alone won't determine whether these Lions get back to the postseason.
Ultimately, Detroit's consistency factor—which has been difficult to nail down during the Jim Schwartz era—will decide if the 7-5 Lions make good on their talent and win the watered-down NFC North.
“We haven’t always handled success well,” Schwartz said, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
Especially not recently, coach.
In 2011, the Lions began a perfect 5-0 but had to scratch and claw their way to 10-6 and a playoff berth. A year later, Detroit regressed to 4-12 and a last-place finish in the NFC North.
This season, the Lions blew an opportunity to run away with a division missing Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler when Detroit lost back-to-back games to the three-win Pittsburgh Steelers and two-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A 40-10 blowout win over the Packers on Thanksgiving has put the Lions back in the driver's seat for a division title. Center Dominic Raiola believes the same urgency put into that game needs to be had for the final four.
"That’s the best way to do it and it is the only way to do it when you’re in this position," Raiola said, via McCosky. "We are not going to take that foot off the gas. There is no relaxing.”
Three important areas will need to gain consistency to keep the Lions' ship steady during the playoff push.
The month of November was mostly a roller-coaster ride for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
In bookend wins over the Bears and Packers, Stafford threw for six touchdown passes and had a passer rating around 95.0. But in Detroit's two middle losses, the Lions quarterback tossed five picks, completed less than 50 percent of his passes and finished with a passer rating of just 69.8.
These wild swings won't cut it in December, when the Lions need the best from Stafford.
In fact, all four of the remaining games are losable if Stafford plays as inconsistently as he did against both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Instead, the Lions could use the Stafford that began the season by finishing six of his first eight games with a passer rating over 90.0.
|Matthew Stafford's Up-and-Down November|
|Two Wins (vs. GB, CHI)||40/70||549||6-3||93.1|
|Two Losses (vs. PIT, TB)||45/92||659||5-5||68.2|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Maybe, Stafford just needed to get out of the month of November.
Over his career, Stafford has a passer rating over 85.0 in every month but November, when he's thrown 32 of his 68 career interceptions for a rating of just 74.6. Over 10 career games in December, Stafford has a rating of nearly 12 points higher.
Many factors will go into the Lions making the playoffs this season, but none will be as important as Stafford. If he can reestablish some kind of equilibrium over the last month, the Lions are likely heading to the postseason.
Defensive Line Pressure
The Lions have the talent and personnel to be the league's most dominant defensive line week in and week out. That rare and suffocating ability was on full display during Thanksgiving, when the Lions registered seven sacks (including one safety) and three other quarterback hits on a helpless Matt Flynn.
"Unreal," Railoa said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN. "They looked unblockable today. Seriously."
The problem now is maintaining—or at least coming close to replicating—that kind of disruption every time Detroit steps onto the field.
During far too many games, the Lions' front four fails to impose its will at the line of scrimmage. And in those games, Detroit typically finds it difficult to win.
Over the team's five losses, Detroit has averaged roughly three quarterback sacks and hits per game (17 total). In the seven wins, that number jumps to over eight (59). Five sacks or hits on a quarterback might not determine a win or a loss for the Lions, but the difference does highlight how important it is to a winning performance for Detroit to pressure quarterbacks.
|Pressure in Detroit's Wins and Losses|
|Total Quarterback Sacks and Hits||Average|
That idea will remain true over the last month, when the Lions the face Nick Foles (19 touchdowns to zero interceptions in 2013), Joe Flacco (reigning Super Bowl MVP), Eli Manning (passer rating of 90.0 or higher in three straight games) and who ever the Vikings trot out at quarterback in Week 17. The first three names are certainly capable of causing damage to the Lions secondary if the defensive line doesn't play up to expectations.
The beating Detroit put on Flynn and the Packers should, at the very least, raise the confidence level of the entire unit.
"We've got to string performances like this together," defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said.
The foundation of everything Detroit wants to accomplish on defense starts with the front four. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Willie Young can combine to be a game-changing force when everyone is clicking. The Lions are very beatable when they are not.
Miraculously, the Lions have won two games this season when committing four turnovers, plus another when Detroit gave away the football three times. Rarely in the NFL do teams win games when they are that careless in the turnover category.
Overall, the Lions are 29th in the NFL with 25 giveaways.
The last five games have been especially worrying for the Lions.
|Detroit's Turnover Totals, Last Five Games|
|INTs||Fumbles Lost||Total Giveaways|
|vs. Tampa Bay||4||1||5|
|vs. Green Bay||2||2||4|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
During that span, Detroit has an NFL-high 17 turnovers. Three of the five games have finished with Detroit giving away the football four or more times. The Lions somehow managed to beat both the Packers and Cowboys with four turnovers, but a five-turnover day against the Buccaneers was too much to overcome.
Detroit can't rely on being that lucky down the stretch.
The Eagles, who will welcome the Lions to Philadelphia on Sunday, are 6-1 this season when winning the turnover battle. The Giants, Detroit's Week 16 opponent, are a perfect 3-0 in the same situation.
Running back Reggie Bush might have summed it up best following Detroit's four-turnover win over the Packers on Thanksgiving.
"When we get out of our own way, we can be pretty special," Bush said, via ESPN.