For a long time, the Detroit Lions have been one of the cellar-dwellers of the NFL. However, with their recent return to relevance, the NFC North has just become the top division in the NFL, stealing that honour from the recently minted top dogs, the NFC South.
For starters, I will run down why the recent revival of the Lions has caused the change. Then I will explain why the Lions are better.
Firstly, it is uncontestable that the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the league. They won the Super Bowl, will not be losing many important players in free agency and had a solid draft. When comparing them to the top team in the NFC South, the New Orleans Saints, their offense has a slight edge, but their defense is top five, unlike the Saints.
In the battle of the second best teams, the margin of supremacy is similar between the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons, but in the favour of the NFC South representative. While the Bears have a stronger defense, and used the draft well to improve their lines on both sides of the line of scrimmage, the skills of Matty Ice and the offense of the Falcons gives them the nod here. Plus, they added Alabama WR Julio Jones in the draft.
The final non-Lions matchup is between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers. For the potential of Cam Newton and the talent of Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson and Steve Smith, their team is not in the same league as the Vikings. They have the best running back in the NFL, and the defense, with the "Williams Wall" at defensive tackle, Jared Allen and Chad Greenway, more than over-matches the Panthers.
So, finally we return to the Lions. In this match-up based ranking, they go up against another surging team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This matchup is extremely close, as the Bucs and Lions both impressed last year with their performance on the field and on draft day. To separate these teams, I will grade each position group separately with a numerical scale. A grade of 10 means that the group is in the top three in the NFL, while a grade of 1 is the bottom three.
This matchup is a classic case of production versus potential. While Freeman played great last season, Stafford looked like a million dollars in his brief starts, and he was picked first overall for a reason. He has the strongest arm in the league, and also has enough touch to make important throws. However, Freeman has similar skills, and has the production of a great full season to back it up. For that reason, Tampa Bay get a grade of 7, and the Lions score 6 points
The Lions do have the explosive Jahvid Best returning from a turf toe injury, and the recently drafted Mikel Leshoure to give them the power complement needed. This thunder and lightning combination should help to revive the running game in Michigan, which disappeared once the great Barry Sanders retired. However, the Buccaneers have one of the best running backs in the league in LeGarrette Blount. He has the power to drag defenders with him, and enough speed to run away from defenders. For Blount's dominance, his team scores 8 points, and the Lions get 6 points again based more on potential than actual production.
This is where the Lions can earn some points back. With Johnson, Nate Burleson and Titus Young they have a talented group of pass catchers who can stretch the field and have safe hands to move the chains. Brandon Pettigrew is also a very good tight end who is a big, and often open, target in the middle. Also, back-ups Tony Scheffler and Derrick Williams are decent players. In contrast, the Bucs have a top wide receiver in Mike Williams, and young guys with potential like Arrelious Benn. Also, Kellen Winslow is a great receiving tight end. However, there is less potential and production in the Bucs lineup, which is why the Lions earn 7 points, and the Buccaneers get 6 points.
Both teams have relatively suspect offensive lines. However, the Buccaneers have a solid player in Donald Penn and a competent complementary line to go with him. For the Lions, other than Rob Sims, the line needs either more experience or more youth. For that reason, the Lions earn 4 points, and Tampa Bay gets 6.
This is where the Lions are truly elite. They may not have the best defensive line in the NFL, but it is certainly in the top three, so they get 10 points. Nothing more really needs to be said. In the case of the Buccaneers, they have a young and talented line made up with four young early picks. However, both defensive ends have health question marks, and Brian Price struggled in his first season. For these reasons, they get a 7 here.
While the Lions corps has been criticised, they have a decent group of players here. Levy is a quality starter, and Carpenter and Palmer played well at the end of the 2010 season. However, it has yet to really perform at a top level, and does not have a lot of star power on it. In contrast, the Buccaneers have a strong group with Geno Hayes and Quincy Black locking down the outside linebacker spots, while rookie Mason Foster is likely to start in the middle. Again, not a lot of real star power, but their good production earns them a 7, while the Lions get a 5.
Another weakness of the Lions is the secondary. They have no real stars in it, and need to add a free agent to become competitive here. Louis Delmas is the undisputed leader, but had a down year in 2010. All in all, the Lions get a 4. The Buccaneers also struggle in the secondary. Other than Aqib Talib, they lack a top corner. They get a 6 because of Talib's ability as a number one cornerback.
The numerical winner is Detroit, with a margin of 42 to 41. This represents the closeness of the two teams, and the slight advantage that the Lions have, primarily because of how strong their defensive line is.
Because the Lions just get the best of the Buccaneers, the NFC North, by my reckoning, becomes the top division in the NFL. And for all you Bears, Packers and Vikings fans who question our development into a top team, you have us to thank this time. You're most welcome!