2011 NFL Predictions: 7 Reasons Detroit Lions Can Win NFC North
The NFL champion Green Bay Packers look unbeatable, but the Detroit Lions could sneak ahead and capture the NFC North.
It’s easy to forget that last year’s Superbowl champs didn’t even win their own division. The Packers are a juggernaut going into this season, returning the bulk of their championship team and adding previously injured studs Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back into the mix.
Even so, it’s way to early to hand them the division title in 2011.
The Detroit Lions have been electric in the preseason on both sides of the ball. Ndamukong Suh has led a savage defense, and Matthew Stafford is finally back at the helm of an explosive offense.
The Lions certainly have a lot to prove, but there’s no question that the talent and coaching is in place for a run to a division title.
Unbelievable though it may be, it is possible for the lowly Lions to topple the defending champs.
The Defensive Line
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The Detroit Lions defense will be strong this season, with a deep and fearsome defensive line leading the charge.
Ndamukong Suh will rightfully draw most of the headlines, but he’s not the only difference maker on the Lions line. Pro bowler Kyle Vanden Bosch will flank Suh along with rising sack artist Cliff Avril. DT Corey Williams provides a space-eating complement to Suh’s unstoppable penetration.
Oh by the way, Nick Fairley, the Lions’ first-round pick and arguably the best defensive player in college football last season, hasn’t even played yet!
The Lions line can lead them to the division title in a couple of ways.
In the conventional sense, having a great defensive line will help the Lions surrender fewer points and win more games.
Unconventionally, the Detroit defensive line has the potential to remove the biggest obstacle standing in the Lions’ way: Aaron Rodgers.
Contrary to quite a few opinions, the Lions defenders aren’t dirty. However, they take the field every game looking to put a hurt on their opponents. I don’t believe that there is an intent to injure, but that doesn’t change the fact that injuries are a stark reality in today’s NFL.
Rodgers has suffered a couple of concussions in his career and the Suh and crew are more than capable of dishing out a few skull-rattling hits. Again, it’s not really something that a team can plan for, but an Aaron Rodgers injury would absolutely clear a path for Detroit to take the NFC North title.
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Nearly all of the Detroit Lions have been impressive during this preseason, but no player has matched Matthew Stafford.
We always have to take preseason stats with a grain of salt, but Stafford’s line is just too startling to ignore. He has 24 completions on 31 attempts for 356 yards and five touchdowns.
On Saturday night against the Patriots, Stafford was undeniably the best quarterback on the field. That doesn’t happen often for QBs sharing a stadium with Tom Brady.
Preseason stats aside, Stafford has always had the talent to excel in the NFL. All he’s lacked is the right situation.
With a veteran offensive line and a full complement of weapons at his disposal, the stars are aligned for Stafford to explode in 2011. He’s over his injuries from the past two seasons, and there really isn’t much danger of those maladies ending his year early again.
It’s a stretch to say that Stafford will be the best quarterback in the NFC North, no matter how much he improves. However, the closer he can get to matching Aaron Rodgers, the better the Lions’ chances of taking the division.
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Though his position limits him to single-digit touches in the majority of his games, Calvin Johnson still possesses the ability to win a game by himself.
Even when he doesn’t touch the ball, Johnson forces the defense to adjust. Regardless of the down, distance and situation, every defender on the field needs to know where 81 is at all times. That opens up opportunities for his teammates.
As the Detroit Lions offense begins to cash in on its collective potential, Calvin Johnson is in a position to post the best season of his still-young career. If Stafford performs as well during the regular season as he has in the preseason, there’s no limit what Johnson could produce this season.
As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships. Calvin Johnson is a tsunami that might just lift the Lions all the way to the top of their division.
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The NFC North will certainly be a competitive division, but it’s ultimately going to come down to two teams. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions are the cream of the division; the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears are the butter on the bottom of the churn.
The Vikings have finally added a professional quarterback to replace the departed Tavaris Jackson, but Donovan McNabb has fallen a long way from his days as a Philadelphia Eagle. As always, the Vikings have plenty of individual talent, but as always, they seem to lack the unifying player, scheme or coach that can bring it all together.
The Bears are a known quantity. Jay Culter is good, then great, then maddeningly terrible. Devin Hester wants to play a bigger role as a receiver, but just isn’t very good at it. The defense is aging, yet its stars are seemingly ageless.
They’ll play a ton of close games in crappy weather and ultimately end up with eight to 10 wins.
The Bears and Vikings both have the potential to be pretty good teams, but neither has the upside of the Lions.
With the best defensive line in football and an improving offense, Detroit can easily leapfrog the Chicago and Minnesota. That leaves the defending champs as the only obstacle to an NFC North title.
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Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have the belt. They’ve worn it with pride all offseason.
Once the 2011 NFL season kicks off, that belt might as well be a bullseye.
Teams approach the game differently when they face off with the defending champs. Fair or not, players will give a little bit more when they have the opportunity to beat the best in the league.
The Packers are more than capable of winning quite a few games this season, but every one of those games will be the game of the year for their opponents.
The Lions, on the other hand, remain under the radar. Even with all the preseason hype, there’s plenty of doubt across the league about how good this team really is. Lest we forget, the last time that the Detroit Lions swept through their preseason schedule, they failed to win one game that counted.
Oddly enough, the Lions history of failure and futility might actually help them in their quest for the NFC North crown.
"The Disease of Me"
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Pat Riley coined “The Disease of Me” during his days coaching the showtime Los Angeles Lakers. Essentially, it’s the idea that once a team wins a championship, its players become more and more concerned with themselves and less and less concerned with the team.
This is what makes repeating so difficult.
While it’s true that Green Bay didn’t take the NFC North title last season, I think a Super Bowl victory qualifies them for consideration here.
Riley developed his theory as a way to motivate his basketball team, but it may be even more poignant in the NFL. Though it’s easier for players to go out for themselves in basketball, football is the ultimate team game. An individualistic action on the gridiron can have devastating consequences for the team as a whole.
The Packers have yet to show many symptoms of this illness, but look for it to impact the development of the team as the year goes on.
Will sack artist Clay Matthews occasionally abandon is run-stuffing responsibilities to tee of on the quarterback?
Will Aaron Rodgers try to squeeze his passes into impossibly small windows?
How will Jermichael Finley carve out a role in an offense that’s already reached the mountaintop?
Who knows how each member of the Packers will adjust to their position as a member of the defending champs, but if “The Disease of Me” takes hold, it could open the door for the Detroit Lions.
Division Champion Turnover
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Parity rules in the NFL. Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, every NFC division winner turned over. Unfortunately for the Lions, that doesn’t eliminate the Packers for this year, as they finished second in the NFL North last season, but go with me on this one.
Though the Lions have set up shop in the basement for the better part of the last decade, there is a precedent for instant elevation. Just the knowledge that this is possible can buoy the spirits of players and fans alike.
In a way, parity in the NFL is a self-fulfilling rule. Reassuring trends like this are what give the bottom feeders hope that they can one day rise to the top of the standings. In an emotional game, just a little reassurance can make the difference between a win and a loss.
The Lions have brought more emotion to this preseason than any other team in football because they know what they’ve been just as much as they know what they want to be. The Detroit Lions are on a mission to destroy the negative perception of their franchise.
A division crown would go a long way toward accomplishing that, and the Lions players know without a shadow of a doubt that their goal is completely attainable.