DETROIT – In most American cities fortunate enough to claim an NFL team, the word "playoffs" is held in the highest regard. With each win and loss, fans assess how the odds of their favorite team making the playoffs have changed, or which playoff position that team will hold.
But in Detroit, the P word has developed a largely taboo connotation. When the Lions win, fans are relieved, but there's always a lingering fear that the victory will ultimately end up hurting the team's draft position, rather than improving the odds of a postseason appearance.
Lions fans are inherently skeptical, and it's not without reason. Since making the playoffs in 2011, Detroit has put together a respectable 9-7 record in first halves of seasons only to post a combined 2-14 mark in the second half. In other words, Lions fans have seen this narrative before, and things haven't ended well.
Is this season different? Take a look at some of the evidence before you throw up your arms and exclaim, "It's still the Lions!" The Lions are still seven long weeks from potentially turning this postseason dream into a reality, but let's take a look at this team's resume going forward.
History -- Week 10 flipped the script
This harmless, seven-letter word is responsible for much of the residual doubt in the minds of Lions fans, despite the strong start to this season. "History" suggests that the Lions will race out to a big division lead, but eventually fold under the pressure of being a top-tier NFL team.
Well, until Sunday it did.
With one 11-yard pass from Matt Stafford to Theo Riddick late in the game Sunday, the Lions flipped the scripts on the history that landed them on the outside looking in so many times over the past 20 years.
If the second half of the season started with a loss to the Dolphins, the Lions would have landed on a slippery slope. Games in Arizona and New England over the next two weeks would have set up a potential three-game losing streak that probably would have sunk any lingering playoff hopes. But now the Lions are 7-2, and with that, the team enjoys the rare luxury of having history on its side.
Over the last 20 years, the Lions have started 6-2 just three times (1999, 2007, 2011) before this season. In all three instances, the Lions went out in week 10 and lost, falling to 6-3. In those seasons, the Lions put together a combined 7-17 second-half record and an 0-2 record in the playoffs.
This season, the obvious difference is that the Lions won in week 10. The last time Detroit won a week-10 game to improve to 7-2 was in 1993, which was also the last time the team won a division championship. That team finished the season 3-4 and won the NFC Central Division, so it's possible this team could do the same.
Schedule -- Lions set up for double digit wins
In an odd way, the Lions' schedule apparently sets up for the team to lose the division, but still squeak into the postseason as a wildcard team. With three winable home games and three difficult road games remaining, the Lions are in an excellent position to finish either 10-6 or 11-5.
Games Detroit should win:
Nov. 27 vs. Chicago
Dec. 7 vs. Tampa Bay
Dec. 14 vs. Minnesota
Detroit's final three home games of the regular season come in weeks 13-15 against teams with a combined record of 8-19. The Lions are 4-1 at home this season against teams with a combined 23-22 record, so they should take care of business against the Bears, Bucs and Vikings.
Remember, last year the Lions lost to the Bucs, Ravens and Giants at home with the playoffs on the line, but this year's team has already beaten three winning teams in Ford Field.
Games Detroit should lose:
Nov. 16 @ Arizona
Nov. 23 @ New England
Dec. 28 @ Green Bay
As well as the Lions have played this season, they could realistically steal at least one of these games on the road. But even if they drop all three games against the Cardinals, Patriots and Packers, winning at least 10 games would remain a strong possibility.
Perhaps the most intriguing game on the schedule comes on Dec. 21 in Chicago. The Bears were embarrassed on national television Sunday night, when the Packers dismantled Mark Tressman's team 55-14. Chicago is 3-6 on the season and won't be a contender for the division title, but it will still be difficult for the Lions to win in Soldier Field for a second straight season.
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Games are never played on paper, but if the schedule plays out as it should, the Lions will finish 11-5.
Would 11-5 be good enough to make the postseason? Assuming the Lions don't upset the Packers in week 17, 11 wins may not be good enough to win the division, but it should be a higher total that that of fellow wildcard contenders. Dallas (7-3) still has two games against the first-place Eagles on their schedule and a week 16 matchup with the Colts. Division rivals San Francisco and Seattle have to play each other twice and both teams have a gauntlet to go through down the stretch.
Wildcard contenders remaining opponent records:
Inconsistency -- Playing one half of football
Detroit's 7-2 record is exceptionally surprising, as the team has yet to put together a complete game offensively. The offense has either started strong and leveled out in the second half or waited until after the break to kick into gear.
Take a look at the second halves of games. Since week 1, when they scored 21 points in the second half, the Lions have scored just seven points in the second half four times and been shut out once. However, in weeks 7 and 8, the Lions scored a total of 43 second-half points, only to put up a total of three first-half points combined.
On Sunday the Lions managed to score 10 points in both the first and second halfs, but the box score doesn't tell the whole tale. Detroit scored 10 points on its first two drives and 10 more points in its final three drives, only to be shut out for over 37 minutes in between. If the Lions can conquer the extended slumps that have haunted them during games, the offense will finally turn into the many-headed monster fans expected.
Injuries -- New players going down
This weekend's Revival Sunday game brought many of the Lions' weapons back to the field, including pro-bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Reggie Bush and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Detroit certainly benefits from having those weapons back, but injuries decimated the offensive line Sunday to put the offense up against a very different wall.
Despite a standout performance last season, the Lions' offensive line has struggled throughout 2014. Stafford has been sacked 27 times (third most in NFL) and the running backs are averaging a league-low 3.1 yards per carry. Now the line will deal with injuries to the right side as guard Larry Warford and tackle LaAdrian Waddle both suffered what appeared to be knee injuries.
Rookie Travis Swanson filled in for Warford and Cornelius Lucas for Waddle during the team's game-winning drive, but those injuries will further handicap a line that has been exposed all season.
If the Lions hope to make a real push for a division championship, the offensive line will have to overcome another slew of injuries.
Quarterback -- Will the real Matt Stafford please stand up?
Seriously, what is up with this guy? Is Detroit's franchise quarterback actually toying with fans before shrugging off fourth-quarter deficits week after week to lead the Lions to victory.
At times in every game Stafford misses seemingly open receivers with throws over, under, ahead and behind targets and mixes in the occasional maddening interception.
But then crunch time comes.
Sunday's game-winning drive offered a perfect example of why Stafford was a No. 1 overall pick. When the Lions needed a big play to jump-start the passing game, he threw an absolute bullet to Golden Tate over the middle for 17 yards, fitting the pass over a linebacker in the middle and former Lions safety Louis Delmas over the top.
Then, the 26-year-old hurried his team to the line, took a snap and threw a dime to Johnson on the right sideline while sprinting away from pressure. He hit Megatron in stride despite running hard to the right, one of the most difficult plays for a quarterback to make.
Finally, facing a 3rd and 4 with only 36 seconds left, Stafford found his backup running back on a wheel route for an 11-yard touchdown to win the game. The ball was placed low and inside the defender, who had no chance to stop Riddick from dropping down to make the grab.
Those are the throws that make football experts drool over Stafford's talent.
As the team tries to win its first NCF North title, the Stafford effect will be the most important variable. If he can harness his fourth-quarter talent, the offense will flourish. If he struggles like he did down the stretch in 2013, the defense will have to keep holding opponents to just 15.8 points per game to carry this team into January.
What can we make of this Lions team? Well, at 7-2, Jim Caldwell has Detroit in great position to make the postseason. Four wins over sub-.500 competition would put the Lions at 11-5 and one more victory would likely propel them to a division title.
There's more work to be done in the final seven weeks, but this defense is legit and the offense has potential. Critics will argue that the Lions are three plays away from being 4-5, but in reality they own the second best record in the NFL and a chance to play early in 2015.
- If the playoffs started today, the Lions would have a first-round bye and play the winner of the Saints and Cowboys at Ford Field.
- Arizona, Detroit's next opponent and the only team in the country with more wins than the Lions, announced that starting quarterback Carson Palmer likely tore his ACL during the team's win over St. Louis Sunday.
- After holding the Dolphins to just 16 points Sunday, the Lions' defense ranks first in the league in opponent points and yards per game and in the top three in both oppoent rushing and passing yards per game.
- Detroit is 3-1 against teams with a winning record and has three more of those matchups remaining.