The Detroit Lions are a team that has had little success in recent history. In the last 10 seasons, the Lions are a measly 39-121, meaning they've averaged less than four wins a season over the last decade. They've seen unusually high turnover in the coaching department, and have made very poor decisions on draft day. However, since the departure of Matt Millen, the team has begun to turn things around.
Martin Mayhew has shown a very different draft philosophy than his predecessor; selecting the most talented player on the board, rather than trying to fill team voids. Mayhew's steady hand has allowed the team to begin to restock with talent. Players like Stafford, Delmas, Suh, Fairley, Best, Pettigrew and Young have all joined the roster in the last three drafts after years of busts and disappointments.
The growth of the current Lions, coupled with the addition of young talent and the return of Matthew Stafford, has many believing this could finally be the year for Motown. Let's go week-by-week through the 2011 season and see if the Lions are contenders or pretenders.
This is a matchup of two of 2010’s biggest surprises: the Buccaneers rebounded from a dismal 2009, rattling off 10 wins and just missing the playoffs, while the Lions won an improbable four in a row to close the season as the injured Matthew Stafford looked on. In 2011, expectations surround both teams as fans believe this will finally be “the year”.
I believe this will be a great game, with both teams looking to get off on the right foot. Even with Clayborn and Bowers coming in for Tampa, the idea they can produce Week 1 following an abbreviated offseason is hard to believe. I give Detroit’s defensive line the edge based on experience, and if Stafford can stay upright and keep his shoulders in the sockets, he is a top-10 quarterback in the league.
Tampa did little in the draft to sure up an offensive line that gave up 30 sacks, and I expect the Lions to feed on Josh Freeman. This one is close until the fourth quarter when Stafford’s third touchdown of the game puts the Lions ahead for good.
Final Score: Lions 31 Buccaneers 17
Week 2 will be a measuring stick to see how far the Lions could go this season. The Chiefs, like the Bucs, were 10-6 in 2010, but in my mind the Chiefs are a more complete team. With the emergence of Jamaal Charles, and the revitalization of Thomas Jones, Kansas City has shown they are more than capable in the ground game.
The strength of the Lions is the defensive front, and I believe they are big enough, and athletic enough to limit teams trying to run between the tackles. However, the ability of Jamaal Charles to bounce outside, coupled with the receiving tandem of Dwayne Bowe and rookie Jonathan Baldwin, may prove to be too much for the Lions.
To win this game, the linebackers and secondary of Detroit will have to be much better than they were in 2010, and with few off season additions (pending free agency), how much improvement can we expect?
Final Score: Lions 24 Chiefs 35
In the first divisional matchup of the season, the Lions head to Minnesota, a place where they haven’t won since 1997, to take on the new-look Vikings. 2010 was a disaster for the Vikings, who only wonone divisional game all year and finishing dead last in the NFC North. It’s easy to argue that the Lions, with an identical 6-10 record, weren’t that much better; but they were.
The Lions overachieved, contending in games they were expected to be blown out of. The Vikings underachieved miserably, being blown out of games they expected to win. These are two teams moving in opposite directions.
The quarterback situation in Minnesota is something that has yet to be figured out, but whether it’s Webb, Ponder, or a veteran like Donovan McNabb (Brett Favre anyone?), expect the Lions to put up double digit sacks in this game. Suh and company shut down Peterson and knock the starting quarterback out of this one.
Final Score: Lions 28 Vikings 10
The matchup with the ‘Boys will be the third road game out of the first four for Detroit. With Dallas lining up against the Jets, the Niners, and the Skins for their first three, I expect both teams to come in at 2-1.
Last season, Dallas finished 6-10 amid coaching turmoil and an injury to their starting quarterback. In April, they used their first round pick on Tyron Smith in an effort to prevent Romo from going down again.
In the game between these two teams last year, I felt the Lions had Dallas where they wanted them and gave the game away. Dallas lacks breakaway speed in the run game, and trying to bruise the Lions up the middle is not a battle the Cowboys can win.
Assuming Stafford is still healthy at this point in the season, I think the Lions have a great opportunity to take advantage of an aging Cowboys defense. Best and Leshoure will have to shoulder the load in the fourth quarter. This one will go down to the final drive.
Final Score: Lions 20 Cowboys 17
In Week 5, the Chicago Bears visit Ford Field for the Lions’ first Monday Night Football game in nearly a decade. Coming into the season, I see the Bears as the third most talented team in the NFC North; however I will say they are great at getting the most out of their players.
Assuming I haven’t missed on my first four weeks, Ford Field will be louder than ever for this game. Last season, even as the Lions had been eliminated from contention, when the winning streak began, the town's passion was reignited.
I think that the effect of crowd noise on an offense tends to be overstated. However, combined with the snarling front the Lions will trot onto the field, Cutler will have his hands full. Matt Forte’s speed to the outside has beaten Detroit the last few meetings, but I think the emotion of this game is impossible to overstate.This one ends on a Cutler interception to cheers like the NFL has never heard before.
Final Score: Lions 31 Bears 27
The Lions enter this game at 4-1 and Stafford looks like he’s put his health issues behind him. Looking at the schedule, I expect the 49ers to be 2-3. It’s impossible to know who will be quarterbacking the 49ers by this point in the season, or the effect Jim Harbaugh will have on the team, but you know the coach is going to be amped coming back to the state of Michigan.
The 49ers are a team with a lot of weapons, and a lot of potential, but they just never really seem to live up to the hype. Vernon Davis has had a few nice games, and I’ve lost more than once in fantasy football due to Frank Gore’s gaudy numbers, but in the end, I don’t believe they’ll have what it takes to hang with the Lions.
I expect Detroit’s defensive line to have a big game against the Niners, bringing a ridiculous amount of heat and stuffing any attempt at developing the running game. However, coming off the Monday Night Football appearance, I think the Lions offense is in for a letdown. In the end, special teams will be the difference in this one.
Final Score: Lions 20 49ers 13
At 5-1, expect Ford Field to just as raucous as it was for the Bears game Week 5. However, don’t expect it to last. The Atlanta Falcons are a team that I expect to win their division, and they are even an early favorite to make a run at the NFC Championship.
The quarterback matchup in this one should be interesting; while Stafford has sat on the sidelines for the past two seasons, Ryan has been lighting up defenses and earning the moniker “Matty Ice”. With Stafford finally living up to the hype, this could be a matchup between two of the NFC’s brightest young stars.
Even so, I believe the Falcons are just too good. They’ve had a taste of the playoffs and know what it takes to get back. The addition of Julio Jones takes this offense from extreme to down-right nasty. I think the Lions will hang in there with Atlanta, but it’s only a matter of time before Ryan shreds the unimproved secondary.
Final Score: Lions 21 Falcons 38
Following a disappointing showing against the Falcons, the Lions go on the road the week before their bye to face Denver. By Week 8, the Broncos will have had enough time to decide on a starter, and to change their mind once or twice. I fully expect to see Tim Tebow on the field for this one; not because he’s the best quarterback on their roster, but because he’s who the fans and front office want to succeed.
The Broncos defense was atrocious last season, giving up an average of 400 yards a game. They surrendered 26 passing touchdowns and 26 rushing touchdowns in 2010 but I believe they'll be considerably better looking at their draft class.
This game is going to come down to the running backs. Both teams possess superior pass rushers, and I think the quarterbacks on both sides will be running for their lives. I predict this to be Mikel Leshoure's biggest game of the season as the Lions rookie racks up nearly 150 yards rushing. Still, I think the Broncos squeak out a victory as the Lions stumble into their bye.
Final Score: Lions 16 Broncos 23
At the bye week, the Lions are 5-3. The NFL analysts throw around phrases like "They have to learn how to win" and "They haven't been there before". And for some reason, ESPN asks NFL "expert" Matt Millen's opinion on the team's season thus far as viewers all over Michigan reach for the remote.
In Week 5, on Monday Night Football, these divisional rivals put on a show. Heading into Week 10, the teams are moving in opposite directions. After a hot 5-1 start, the Lions have lost their last two, while the Bears are coming off a very impressive showing against the Eagles on Monday Night Football.
With the Lions having a bye in Week 9, and the Bears coming off a Monday Night Football appearance, I give the nod to Detroit in terms of game planning.
Over the years though, we've seen it become increasingly difficult to beat the same team twice in a season. I believe the Bears will use what they learned in the Week 5 loss to continue their winning ways and hand the Lions their third loss in a row, bumping their once promising 5-1 start to 5-4.
Final Score: Lions 10 Bears 26
Following three consecutive Lions losses, the 1-8 Panthers roll into town at just the right time. Cam Newton has shown flashes of athleticism in the first half of the season, but his poor footwork and lack of weapons have made for a disappointing rookie campaign.
Last season, the Panthers offense was anemic. They averaged less than 150 yards passing a game and threw for just 9 touchdowns. Carolina averaged only 115 yards a game on the ground, and on the season, the Panthers had just 16 offensive touchdowns. A team with such a deficient offense has pinned all their hopes on Newton and I don't think he's ready.
Expect Gunther Cunningham to show blitzes this week that he hasn't shown all season. Newton's quickness will keep the Lions sack totals down, but his scrambling will result in multiple interceptions and a passer rating under 50.
Stafford gets back on track this week and Detroit recaptures the magic they had early in the season.
Final Score: Lions 45 Panthers 13
Week 12 marks the first time the Lions line up against the world champs this season. In my mind, this is a watermark game for Detroit. Up till this point, the Lions have won the games they were supposed to, but haven’t really had a signature win. Call me crazy, but this will be the upset of the week.
In front of a sold out Thanksgiving Day crowd, the Lions force a turnover on the Packers' first drive but have to settle for a field goal. The next possession results in a touchdown and Detroit sports an early 10-0 lead. But a sputtering Lions offense, and the resolve of Aaron Rodgers, keeps the Packers in the game and in the fourth quarter they lead 24-10.
With just minutes remaining, Detroit is able to piece together a quick touchdown drive and the defense follows it up with a herculean three-and-out, resulting in a heart stopping final two minutes. Matthew Stafford displays great clock management skills, and rookie Titus Young’s blazing speed turns a third down crossing route into a huge gain. Young’s first down sets up an end zone fade to Calvin Johnson with just seconds left.
Sitting at 6-4 on the season, Coach Jim Schwartz decides to go for the two-point conversion and a play action pass to Pettigrew sends Motown into a frenzy. I spend the next hour cleaning mashed potatoes off the carpet with a big smile on my face. Happy Thanksgiving, Detroit.
Final Score: Lions 25 Packers 24
After Week 12’s emotional last second win over the Packers, the 7-4 Lions are in for a letdown against the Saints. The Saints have worked in the offseason to build a running game to complement their perennial Pro Bowler Drew Brees, and although his numbers have dropped off, the offense is more balanced in 2011. The Saints are once again a playoff contender in the NFC.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions defensive front has been able to stay relatively healthy thus far, but it’s usually at this point of the season where guys begin to feel the wear and tear. The line won’t have any trouble slowing down fellow Michigander Mark Ingram, but don’t expect the pass rush to be as successful as it has been in recent weeks.
The pundits have made the Lions a flashy pick, but this week the magic just isn’t there. In the end, Brees shows that the increased emphasis on the rushing attack has taken little away from the passing game. The veteran quarterback throws over 40 passes and racks up a passer rating of nearly 100 as the Saints expose the unimproved Lions secondary like Matty Ice and the Falcons did a few months ago.
Final Score: Lions 17 Saints 38
With Week 13’s embarrassment still fresh in their minds, the Lions enter their final four games in need of three wins to have a shot at the Wild Card. The 3-9 Vikings have struggled under new head coach Leslie Frazier and rookie Christian Ponder finds himself in the starting role after injuries and poor play forced the other quarterbacks to the bench.
Ford Field is sold out again for this one, and the Lions home field has become one of the loudest in the league. The tandem of Fairley and Suh is the most feared pair of defensive tackles in the NFC and at this point in the season, it appears both will make the Pro Bowl. The incessant pressure on from the defensive line stokes the already fiery crowd as Peterson gets battered and Ponder looks like a rookie.
From start to finish, this is a blowout as Burleson and Johnson each haul in long touchdown passes before the Lions go to the ground game and ice the victory. The defensive minded Frazier looks badly out-coached and Minneapolis newspapers begin writing about his future with three weeks left in the season.
Final Score: Lions 31 Vikings 7
Thinking about the Week 15 matchup with the Raiders, I realized something; the Raiders have very few players I can actually name. In fact, besides maybe Darren McFadden, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Campbell, I don’t think I’d be able to pick their starters out of a lineup. It could be that they are from California and play all the 4 p.m. games, or it could be because I’m an NFC guy, but the moves Al Davis has signed off on has turned this team into a group of relative unknowns. To his credit though, they have also turned the team into a contender.
After the departure of Asomugha, I don’t see the Raiders competing for a playoff spot this season, but they will be near the .500 mark. Their play in 2010, though spirited, was very inconsistent. The Raiders play hard, but by Week 15, the Lions will be the only team with something to lose.
Playing a meaningful game this late in the season is a new experience for most of the Lions roster, but they prove up to the challenge. Young Matthew Stafford has been stellar over the last month, with the only exception being Week 13 against the Saints. The offense is firing on all cylinders, and with Young, Best, Burleson, Johnson and Pettigrew all viable receiving options, the Raiders secondary is in for a long day. Fantasy owners of Janikowski rejoice as he kicks four field goals in this one, but the Raiders missed opportunities wind up costing them the victory.
Final Score: Lions 27 Raiders 19
For the second week in a row, and the fourth time this season, the now 9-5 Lions line up against an AFC West opponent. On the season, Detroit is 1-2 against the AFC West with their only win coming in Oakland just last week.
In 2011, the Chargers are my team to watch in the AFC, as I believe they will win their division and at least one playoff game. Inexplicably, in 2010 they led the league in both offense and defense, and still missed out on the playoffs. They have one of the top-five quarterbacks in the league in Phillip Rivers, and if they can become a more complete team, I believe they could be Super Bowl bound.
Whether the Chargers are as good as I believe they’ll be is yet to be seen, however what we can count on is they always play their best football down the stretch. If the Lions had the Chargers during the first six weeks of the season, I’d give them the win. But Norv Turner’s record speaks for itself. With an opportunity to win ten games for the first time in over a decade, the Lions stub their toe in this one.
Final Score: Lions 13 Chargers 31
Entering the final week of the season, the Lions are an impressive 9-6. For that reason, I believe this matchup on the frozen tundra will be flex scheduled to Sunday Night Football on NBC.
Here’s how the NFC North will look before the game starts:
Green Bay 11-4 NFC North: 4-1
Chicago 10-6 NFC North: 3-3
Detroit 9-6 NFC North: 4-1
Minnesota 3-13 NFC North: 0-6
The Packers have locked up the division, holding the tie break against the Bears. The Lions find themselves a game behind Chicago for the second spot, and with a win, they could finish at 10-6.
I expect the race for the Wild Cards to be tight, and I believe the Cowboys, Saints, Buccaneers, Bears and Lions will all be within a game or two of each other. With the Saints and Buccaneers both playing in the same division, its unlikely both will arrive at season’s end with 10+ wins. I give the edge to the Buccaneers as Josh Freeman continues to prove he’s not a flash in the pan. The Cowboys will have to survive stiff competition in the NFC East, and looking at their schedule, I see them as a nine-win team.
The Wild Card Standings in the NFC look like this:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5
Chicago Bears 10-6
Dallas Cowboys 9-7
Detroit Lions 9-6
Meaning with a win, the Lions would jump Chicago (better divisional record) and claim a Wildcard spot.
Green Bay has a choice to make in this game. They’ve locked up the NFC North Championship, but the difference between a 12-4 record and an 11-5 record could impact seeding. Coach Mike McCarthy will have to decide if it’s worth risking injury to try and bump their win total to 12 and keep the Lions out of the playoffs.
The Packers should know better than anyone (except maybe the Bears) what a team with nothing to lose can achieve in the playoffs. Last season, the Bears had the opportunity to hold the Packers out of the playoffs by beating them in the final week of the season. The Bears failed and the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, knocking off the Bears in the NFC title game.
This game has all the makings of a classic. The resurgent Lions are returning from a decade of dormancy behind the young gun-slinger Matthew Stafford. They meet the Packers on the frozen tundra in the blowing snow with a playoff berth on the line: old NFC North rivals going at it in prime-time.
This game will be a low-scoring affair, with both quarterbacks feeling the pressure from the defenses and the elements. If the Packers decide to let Matt Flynn take the snaps in this one, the Lions will win the game and complete their return to relevancy. However, if McCarthy elects to give Rodgers the ball (as I believe he will) the Lions will fall just short of the playoffs, ending a miraculous season with a lot to look forward to.
Final Score A: Lions 23 Packers (Rodgers) 28
Final Score B: Lions 17 Packers (Flynn) 13