Could this mean they are first in the division?
No, I have not mixed up my meds or ignored a slow exhaust leak in my car. My mind is clear when I say that the Lions can win the NFC North, even with the Super Bowl Champion Packers in their division. It is quite plausible and there are 10 keys to them doing this. Some obvious and some not so obvious, but if most or all come to fruition, you could be looking at the NFC North Champion Detroit Lions come January.
OK, file this under the "No Duh!" headline, but this is the single most important key. When Matt Stafford has played he has shown to be worth every dollar that was spent on him as the first pick in 2009. He has also become a leader which is as important as his teammates respect and follow him. That is something the Lions have not had since Erik Kramer.
Add to it that he looks bigger now that he has added muscle to protect his shoulder. That is a sign of a quarterback that knows when he must do something about it other than waiting for the decision makers to. If he is able to play all 16 games, then there is no telling how good this Lions team could be. He has the weapons, but can Matt Stafford just stay healthy enough to utilize them?
The Lions had not beaten a division opponent since they beat the Bears back in October of 2007. 3 years later, they finally go that monkey off their back by beating the Green Bay Packers last season. They went 2-4 in the NFC North last year losing those 4 games by an average of 6 points, and remember that both games against the Bears had controversial calls that changed the outcome of the game and the Packers barely beat them at Lambeau. This is a team that could have easily finished 5-1 last year which would have made them 8-8 and a little closer to the play-offs.
This year the Packers are better (or at least healthier) and it is their division for the taking, but If the Lions could take the Thanksgiving Day game from them, go 1-1 against the Bears (who did nothing to improve a horrid O-line) and sweep the Vikings (No quality receivers for McNabb), you have a 4-2 record. In most cases that should get you into the play-offs, if at not least give you the division. As the Raiders would tell you, though, just because you sweep your division, doesn't mean you will win it, but it does give you a better chance to do so.
The Lions hold the record for consecutive road losses and that streak was ended with a win against Tampa Bay last year. 2 weeks later they won in Miami during their 4 game winning streak to end the season. That must continue this season and it will not be easy. In addition to the division games they will be at New Orleans, at Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Dallas, and at Denver. None of those are easy away games, but they must win at least 3 of them to have a shot at the NFC North title.
Last year they lost close away games to The Bears, The Packers, The Giants, and The Bills. All of these were games they could have won. Some say they should have one. If they can continue to improve on their road record, then the better their chances of taking the NFC North away from The Bears and Packers.
The last 2 years, any team in the midst of a losing streak could look forward to playing the Lions. The Rams in 2009 and the Bills in 2010 both benefited from the Lions being on their schedule and avoided prolonging their losing streak. The Lions history is littered with losses to teams that did not have the level of talent they did. Their last winning season was ended short of the play-offs because they let a Cade McNown led Chicago Bears beat them at The Pontiac Silverdome. That ushered in the Millen era and a decade of losing.
This year they are facing 4-5 teams they should and need to beat. The Lions cannot keep letting themselves fall flat against teams that simply do not match the talent level they have. Now, a lot of this had to do with the Lion's own legacy of losing over the past decade, but teams are not feeling as confident going up against the Lions as they used to. They are no longer considered a bye-week or a streak stopper. Time for them to prove it.
Here's a novel idea. How about not letting the game be so close that a bad or controversial call decides the game? A little hard for a bad call to take away your win if you are up by say 10 or more points. Lions fans can bemoan the "Non-catch" or the "Bogus Roughing call". Both were prime examples of the Lions luck. They screamed and yelled, but failed to realize one thing. If they had put more points on the board, the calls would have been non-issues.
The Lions have the offensive fire power and the defense to take any officiating out of the equation. If the Lions had put more points on the board against the Bears the second time around, all the roughing call would have meant is that the Bears had more catching up to do. Instead, it kept a drive alive and led to a touchdown. More points will override bad calls any Sunday.
Don't get me wrong. I love Ndamukong Suh's intensity and the fact that quarterbacks get little sleep the week leading up to face the Lions. He is one of the premier defensive players in the league right now. Opposing coaches have to game plan for him and 10 1/2 sacks in his rookie season showed that he was well worth the second pick in the 2010 draft. Unfortunately, he also was fined and flagged for hits.
While the last thing I want is for him to ratchet down his intensity, he needs to do something about it. That call against him for the Cutler hit last year stunk of a reputation call. Pretty soon he will get a personal foul penalty and fined for simply glaring at a QB before the snap. It stinks because he is playing the game the way all the greats had played it, and all those greats would be getting flagged and fined as well. He needs to find that fine line between aggressive play and over the top. Because pretty soon it is not going to just cost 15 yards and $20K. It may start costing him playing time, and the Lions cannot afford to have that happen.
Calvin Johnson is one of the premier wide outs in the NFL. Nate Burleson is a great compliment. Brandon Pettigrew is starting to show that he is an elite tight end. All 3 are fantastic weapons for Matt Stafford to use, but the biggest key is for Titus Young to contribute. He would be the one thing the Lions receiving corps has not had since Johnnie Morton. A great receiving threat in the slot.
The last few years it had been Bryant Johnson and all one could do was watch while he dropped passes that Lions quarterbacks dared to throw into his hands. If Titus Young pans out, he becomes another threat that could make teams pay if they try to double cover Megatron. Burleson is a nice receiver, but Titus could be that dangerous pass catcher that will take it to the house if you are too busy worrying about Calvin.
Mike Martz used to be an offensive guru. He created the Greatest Show on Turf that lead the St Louis Rams to 2 Super Bowls (1 as head coach). He then went to the Lions and they had their best offensive season since 1994. He went to the Bears last year with a young, strong armed quarterback, a kick returner that would give him great field position, and a defense that would keep the opposing team in their own end. Unfortunately, he ignored his stud running back and his porous pass blocking until the bye-week.
Up until that point, Jay Cutler was getting killed and they started losing games. In fact, after the 9 sack debacle against the Giants (which caused a concussed Cutler to miss a game) the Bears proceeded to lose 2 of the next 3. Then something happened in the bye-week. Martz., instead of stubbornly sticking to the pass which got him axed from the Lions and 49ers, decided to run the ball more. From that point on they went 7-2 and made it to the NFC Championship game. Which at that point Martz went back to his pass first mentality. Martz's ego will not allow him to keep being reigned in and it would help the Lions greatly if that were repeated in 2011.
When The Lions drafted Brandon Pettigrew most fans went berserk. They already hated the pick of Matt Stafford and now, instead of getting a defensive stud like Clay Matthews or protection for your new QB like Michael Oher, they drafted a TE out of Oklahoma state??? The Lions stood by their word and drafted talent over need. The pick of Pettigrew was booed louder than Stafford's. Turns out, the Lions might have gotten it right.
All Pettigrew has done is show that he can be one of the elite tight ends in the league. 71 receptions for over 700 yards and 6 TDs last year was only complimented by the fact that he is a good blacking tight end as well. That is a rare commodity in this league. If he continues to improve at this pace, he will be an annual pro-bowl tight end. Where will those boos be then?
Donovan McNabb will get into the Hall of Fame. With over 35,000 yards passing and 225 TDs to go with a Super Bowl appearance as well as multiple NFC Champions games, he should be a first ballot inductee. Last year he was squandered in Washington as he threw 15 INTs to 14 TDs while still throwing for almost 3400 yards. Now he is in Minnesota keeping the seat warm for Jason Ponder. The Lions cannot afford for him to have a bounce back year.
Last year in Washington, he had no ground game and little help at WR. Now he has Adrian Peterson running the ball and softening up the defense for McNabb to pass. While Minnesota is light on play making WRs, McNabb succeeded quite well in a Philly system that boasted such receiving studs as Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell, and James Thrash. The Lions cannot afford to have McNabb rejuvenate his carrier in Minnesota. They will have a hard enough time dealing with Rodgers and Cutler.
So there you have it. These are the 10 keys to the Detroit Lions being the champions of the NFC North. Some are things that are within their control and some are not, but you cannot argue that if all of these keys are realized that Lions fans will be very happy come the beginning of January.
And a decade of suffering comes to an end.