We've been here before. Kind of. Last year the Lions started 6-3, finished 7-9. The Lions started 4-4 in 2012, then they lost their final 8 games. Historically the Lions have had problems with that hot-start/cold-finish issue (2004, 2007), but almost no players or coaches remain from those teams. So, the Lions made the playoffs in 2011. In the next 3 seasons the Lions have had decent starts and really poor finishes in the last 2. Will this 3rd straight good-start end the same way?
I hesitate to make predictions about this team because I've been burned SO many times. Last year I predicted them for 11 wins. With 7 games left I thought I'd guessed low (they would have needed to go 5-2 but their remaining schedule was weak), but they fell apart. So why should 2014 be different? Well for starters, each of those last couple of late-season meltdowns featured the bad version of Stafford showing up bigtime. I don't know which Matt Stafford has been showing up the last 6 weeks, but it isn't the good one. Calvin Johnson coming back next Sunday or after the bye week will help a lot. Also, remember that Stafford is learning a new offense and I expect him to IMPROVE over the course of the season.
Their remaining games are ATLANTA (a BAD 2-5) in London, MIAMI (an average 3-3) at home, ARIZONA (a GOOD 5-1) away, NEW ENGLAND (an iffy 5-2) at home, a crappy CHICAGO team twice, a crappy TAMPA team once, and MINNESOTA and GREEN BAY. The Cardinals and New England are probably the only tough teams left, and Green Bay looks better now than they did vs. Detroit in week 3. I expect at least 2 wins out of the ATL/MIA/AZ/NE run of games. I expect 4 wins out of that CHI/TB/CHI/MIN run. That GB game... who knows. The last game is hard to predict, since possibly GB and Detroit could be resting up for the playoffs. Looking ahead is always dangerous, especially since we still don't know how good NE, MIA and GB are (throw the Lions in that category too), but 11 wins is not out of the question this year.
Every year since 2011, an article (usually several dozen) is published to the effect of "the Same Old Lions are gone" and this year is no exception. We keep looking for signs that this team is ready to shed the stigma of a perpetually disappointing team. As long as I can remember, the best the Lions have done is hint that they might be ready to turn the corner, make the leap. Then they fall apart. I repeat my question from earlier - why is this season different? Well...
- As we mentioned, the offense isn't exactly playing over its head. Stafford has been... meh. CJ has barely played. The run game is just not there. Pass blocking isn't there. This offense can only go up.
- This defense is GOOD. I can't remember a Lions defense that looked this stout (the aptly named Jerry Ball notwithstanding). Opponents are averaging 15 points per game, and less than 300 yards. The Saints, the #2 offense after Indianapolis, racked up 408 yards on Detroit. This sounds like a lot, but against everyone else New Orleans has averaged 442.8 yards. On top of that, the defense stood tall when they needed a stop, they got a pick that led to a TD and then stuffed the Saints offense on 4th and short. A far cry from that 2011 playoff team that couldn't stop Drew Brees to save its season.
- Another aspect of this defense is the ability to generate big defensive plays. The Lions are tied for 3rd in sacks, 3rd in INTs, and middle of the pack in forced fumbles. They've scored 2 TDs (Rashean Mathis returned a pick and Don Carey returned a fumble) and had a safety as well. They are 2nd in 3rd down conversions NOT allowed, meaning they get off the field.
- The. Kicking. Game. The Lions are on their 3rd kicker, after Freese and Henery lost the job due to EXTREME incompetence. Prater hasn't looked stellar either, however. He's missed 2 out of his 4 attempts, and his make from only 21 yds (basically an extra point) dinked in off the upright...
I think he's rusty from a long layoff. Other than a couple of down years, he's converted between 80-95% of his FGs prior to this year & 78% of FGs at 50+ yds. He'll even out.
- There is a reason the Lions have a history of bad finishes to a season - they get figured out. Gunther Cunningham, gotta love him, but that wide-9, rush 4 thing he did for the last several years got figured out pretty quick. About mid-way through the 2011 season, opponents figured out that they could send a RB to chip the DEs, the interior line could double Suh every play, and Cunningham would never make them pay by sending a blitz. If opposing offenses solve Teryl Austin's D, will he be able to adjust?
They never figure Austin out. Cunningham's problem wasn't just his lack of blitzing, he also ran his basic defense every week. Austin actually varies up his game plans and has better personnel to work with. Austin has basically out-coached or coached a draw against every team the Lions have faced so far.
Per Gregg Easterbrook, teams that start 5-2 make the playoffs 67% of the time and win the Super Bowl 6% of the time. This is not to say that these are Detroit's odds, just that historically this is what has happened. Recent team history is against them. Which history wins?