With Best Healthy QB in NFC North, Lions Look Poised for Legitimate Playoff Push

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystNovember 7, 2017

Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

The 2017 NFL season will likely be remembered as one filled with parity and confusion. If the first half of the year is any indication, those looking back on it will think no number of crushing losses strung together kept a team from convincing itself the playoffs were still within reach.

And usually those teams were right, just as the Detroit Lions were both before, and especially after, their Monday night drubbing of the Green Bay Packers.

The Lions thumped their hobbled division rivals 30-17. They scored that knockout because only one team on the field had a starting-caliber NFL quarterback, thanks to the crushing blow the Packers offense took when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone.

That's not the Lions' problem. They don't need to care about what's happening on the other sideline. They don't need to have sympathy for the injuries and inept play elsewhere in their division either.

But after a convincing win, they can look around, hug their healthy star quarterback tight and see the playoffs as more than just some dreamy mirage. The cosmic football injury ballet has worked its mysterious magic to pull the Lions from the abyss and give them a realistic shot at the postseason.

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The Lions still have a mountain to climb, and it'll be Matthew Stafford leading the expedition. He reminded us what a great quarterback looks like Monday night by finishing with 361 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also completed 78.8 percent of his pass attempts while averaging an incredible 10.9 yards per throw, both of which were easily single-game highs in 2017 for the signal-caller.

The Lions offense had two wide receivers with 100-plus yards. Marvin Jones Jr. was on the other end for both of Stafford's touchdown passes, and, as The Athletic's Chris Burke noted, the wideout has reached white-hot status now:

So has Stafford, with 1,096 passing yards over the same three-game stretch.

But Stafford's piling up yards hasn't been the Lions' problem. Ball security hasn't been an issue either, as Stafford has thrown only four interceptions over 303 attempts, and three of those picks came in one game.

No, what put the Lions' playoff hopes on life support after three straight losses was a crack in the armor that's improved a bit recently, though it still might not be going away anytime soon. It also might not matter too much going forward.

The Lions entered Week 9 with the league's 26th-ranked pass-blocking offensive line, per Football Outsiders. Stafford had taken 25 sacks through seven games. That included an extra-strong dose of offense-crippling pain in the three straight games when he was sacked five-plus times.

But now he's been sacked just three times since the Lions' came out of their Week 7 bye, and only once Monday night by the Packers. Looking ahead, the Lions have three remaining games against defenses currently ranked 23rd or worse in sacks.

That's one way in which their second-half schedule is inviting and the path to the playoffs is looking sunnier. There's also another broad, simple but still really important observation to make about Detroit's upcoming games: Every opponent will have at least as many flaws as the Lions do. 

Detroit Lions remaining schedule
WeekTeamCurrent record
10Cleveland Browns0-8
11Chicago Bears3-5
12Minnesota Vikings6-2
13Baltimore Ravens4-5
14Tampa Bay Buccaneers2-6
15Chicago Bears3-5
16Cincinnati Bengals3-5
17Green Bay Packers4-4
Source: NFL.com

The Lions ended their losing streak and improved to 4-4 Monday night. That might not sound impressive because, well, it usually isn't. The .500 mark is average by definition, and any team with that record at midseason is in the muddied middle.

However, the Lions can surge ahead and break free from the blandness around them while using their dominant win over the Packers as the starting block.

The 2017 season has been filled with teams splashing each other as they violently tread water and keep hope alive. What separates the Lions, though, is the ease that lies ahead both in their schedule, and more importantly, their division.

The Lions have lost three games by five points or fewer and now are set to face just one team currently with a winning record. That team is the Vikings, the NFC North leaders Detroit beat 14-7 in Week 4.

The Lions are still two games back of Minnesota. But they have an elusive weapon in a quarterback-starved division. They have Matthew Stafford.

Aaron Rodgers has likely played his final snap for the Packers in 2017. There's a possibility he could return for Week 15, but that seems unlikely after he had screws inserted into his broken collarbone.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

The Vikings, meanwhile, have turned to Case Keenum with uncertainty still looming around Sam Bradford.

Keenum has hovered between fine and serviceable with his 6.9 yards per attempt and 88.8 passer rating. But there's always an imminent threat he could turn back into a pumpkin and revert to the quarterback who threw 11 interceptions in 2016 over nine starts before being benched in favor of Jared Goff.

Teddy Bridgewater is expected to be activated for Week 10, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. He's provided an exciting and inspiring injury recovery narrative throughout the season. But trusting Bridgewater as a source of steadiness under center is risky after his long layoff.

The Lions come with plenty of their own questions and concerns. There's still shakiness around their offensive line, their secondary gets torched too often, and they have a rushing offense that averaged an embarrassing 1.9 yards per carry Monday.

But what can separate them in their division, and in the wild-card race, is that none of those reasons to break into a cold sweat are tied to the most important position in football. Which is why they're equipped to charge ahead on a legitimate playoff push, resurrecting from what seemed like an early-season burial.


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