When I spoke with Detroit Lions fan Jeff Risdon last week, I was surprised by his optimism. Risdon is usually pretty down on the Lions, but he sees them as a team that will win 10 or more games and make the playoffs for the second straight year. Hell, he might be right, if the Lions catch a few breaks they just might be legitimate contenders for the NFC North title.
Why They’ll Win The North:
They almost did last year. Go back to their Week 3 game against the Packers and you’ll see they flat out bullied them. Aaron Rodgers left the game whining about Green Bay’s scheme — the same scheme that has had them among the highest scoring team in the league for almost a decade. The Lions had them stumped. They met again in Week 17 when the Packers were at their best and the game still came down to the fourth quarter.
The Lions didn’t catch the breaks the Packers did last year. Calvin Johnson was banged up nearly all year and they had injury issues throughout their offensive line. If they could have stayed healthy, there’s reason to think they would have won the division.
The Lions are also in their second year under head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. That should help Matt Stafford almost as much as an improved and healthy offensive line.
Their biggest addition was rookie running back Ameer Abdullah, who has had a few terrifying runs this preseason. Forget Barry Sanders, if he can just be what Jahvid Best was, it’ll be a huge upgrade over Reggie Bush.
As for their defense, Risdon strongly believes coordinator Teryl Austin is a mastermind and that guys like Caraun Reid and Tyrunn Walker can replace Ndamukong Suh.
Why They Won’t:
Suh is a lot to replace. It isn’t just that he was their best player and one of the five best defensive linemen in the league, he was their heart. They were bullies and he was the biggest bully on the block. There was always a chance that the opposing quarterback was going to get hurt and Suh was willing to take a 15-yard penalty to do it. We knew it and you can be damn sure opposing quarterbacks knew it. That fear factor is gone.
While the Lions offense struggled last year, it isn’t as if they’ve regularly been among the best units in the league. In the Stafford-era, the Lions have only ranked inside the top 15 in scoring twice and were 15th once. They’ve ranked much better in terms of yardage, but yards don’t win games.
While they won 10 games last year, most of Detroit’s wins came against subpar competition. Counting the playoffs, they were 1-6 against teams that either had a winning record or made the playoffs (a distinction that is necessary thanks to Carolina’s NFC South-winning record of 7-8-1). Four of their wins came by four points or fewer, six came by a touchdown or less.
After talking to Risdon, I was drinking the Kool Aid. That, of course, also came after watching a couple of their preseason games, seeing how well their defense got after the quarterback and how electrifying Abdullah could be. All signs pointed to Detroit being really good.
But, I never felt like they were really good last year. Maybe it was the close games they had against bad teams. Maybe it was how they got blowout by the Patriots a week after losing to the Cardinals, led by Drew Stanton. The Lions were two or three bad breaks away from being 8-8. Those breaks just might go against them this year.
But if Austin is as good as Risdon thinks he is and the Lions have a top-five defense again, they’ll be tough to beat. They should be at least a little better offensively and that would be enough to get them to 10 wins again. If Detroit stays healthy and the Packers suffer one more significant injury, the Lions could even steal the division.