Coming off a playoff appearance last season, expectations have been raised for the Detroit Lions in 2017. The franchise is still seeking its first postseason win since 1991, adding to the pressure on head coach Jim Caldwell to keep the momentum going.
The Lions' 9-7 record in 2016 does come with cause for concern. For instance, they lost their last four games, including in the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, after a 9-4 start. They flirted with disaster all year, winning eight games by seven points or fewer, and it caught up to them down the stretch.
Detroit wasn't particularly impressive on either side of the ball. The defense finished a respectable 13th in points allowed, but the offense ranked 20th in scoring. The good news is, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers, there isn't a lot of depth in the NFC North to contend with.
Here's a look at the schedule the Lions will go up against in 2017, released on NFL.com, as well as their outlook for the upcoming season.
|2017 Detroit Lions Schedule|
|Week||Date||Opponent||Start Time (ET)||TV|
|1||Sept. 10||Arizona Cardinals||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|2||Sept. 18||at New York Giants (Monday Night Football)||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Sept. 24||Atlanta Falcons||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|4||Oct. 1||at Minnesota Vikings||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|5||Oct. 8||Carolina Panthers||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|6||Oct. 15||at New Orleans Saints||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|8||Oct. 29||Pittsburgh Steelers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|9||Nov. 6||at Green Bay Packers (Monday Night Football)||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|10||Nov. 12||Cleveland Browns||1:00 p.m.||CBS|
|11||Nov. 19||at Chicago Bears||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|12||Nov. 23||Minnesota Vikings (Thanksgiving Day)||12:30 p.m.||FOX|
|13||Dec. 3||at Baltimore Ravens||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|14||Dec. 10||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|15||Dec. 16||Chicago Bears (Saturday)||4:30 p.m.||NFL Network|
|16||Dec. 24||at Cincinnati Bengals||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
|17||Dec. 31||Green Bay Packers||1:00 p.m.||FOX|
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The retirement of star wide receiver Calvin Johnson did add new layers to Matthew Stafford's game. The Lions quarterback had a career-low 10 interceptions (min. 10 games played) and completed 65.3 percent of his passes.
Despite Stafford's numbers, there are still problems the Lions needed to address. Their offense was vanilla, finishing with the sixth-fewest big plays (runs of at least 10 yards, passes of at least 25 yards) in the NFL, per Sporting Charts.
Wide receivers Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin had solid numbers overall (1,661 yards and 12 touchdowns combined), but they aren't going to run by opposing defensive backs at this stage of their careers.
The offensive line was another area the Lions needed to address, which they did in a big way by signing tackle Ricky Wagner away from the Baltimore Ravens and guard T.J. Lang from the Packers.
Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus highlighted Wagner's signing, in particular, as a strong upgrade for the Lions:
Gordon McGuinness @PFF_Gordon
The Lions are upgrading their pass protection by signing right tackle Ricky Wagner https://t.co/kwjDKY0tie2017-3-8 18:26:20
Detroit's defensive front seven was also a problem area in 2016, with Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus rating the group as the NFL's third-worst unit:
With Ziggy Ansah hampered for most of the year with an injury and Haloti Ngata slowing down considerably in his early 30s, the Lions were often dominated up front. This was a unit that featured the lowest-graded starting edge player in the NFL (Devin Taylor), as well as the lowest-graded starting linebacker (Tahir Whitehead).
In an effort to fix those woes, the Lions signed defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington and linebacker Paul Worrilow.
Sensing their window of opportunity to strike in the NFC North, the Lions made aggressive moves during the offseason. They still need to find a running game and speed threat on the outside, but this roster is in much better shape for a playoff push than the one that ended 2016.
If the Lions could have found a way to beat the Green Bay Packers once last season, they would've won the NFC North and earned a home playoff game instead of having to travel to Seattle.
This isn't breaking news because the Packers have been Detroit's white whale for years, owning a 27-7 record in their head-to-head matchups since 2000.
The Packers have been the class of the NFC North since the division's inception in 2002, winning nine division titles. The Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears will always be measuring themselves against Green Bay until at least one of them proves capable of being a consistent threat.
The Falcons, Steelers and Giants will likely figure prominently in the playoff picture this season. If the Lions want to be thought of on that level, they need to win at least one of those games.