The Detroit Lions were one of the feel-good stories of the 2011 NFL season nine weeks ago. Winners of their first five games, the Lions were marching towards what appeared to be an eventual playoff appearance.
Fast forward nine weeks and, while still in the playoff picture, the Lions’ roar has subsided to a meow as the team has gone 3-5 since its perfect start.
At 8-5, the Lions are now masters of their own playoff destiny.
Their most straightforward qualifying scenario is simple: win each of their final three games — one of which is a potential history-making tilt at Green Bay in the regular season finale on New Year’s Day — and the Lions are in.
Anything less than perfect down the stretch will make the Lions’ playoff picture murkier. Because Green Bay has already clinched the NFC North title, one thing is clear for the Lions: the only way into the playoffs is as a wild-card entry.
Through Week 14, the Lions occupy the NFC’s final wild-card slot behind Atlanta (8-5), which holds the head-to-head tiebreaking advantage by virtue of the Falcons’ 23-16 win over the Lions on Oct. 23. Dallas and Chicago — both of which are 7-6 — are a game behind the Lions for the final playoff spot. New York (7-6) holds the tiebreaking edge over Dallas for the NFC East title, but the teams meet in the season finale in New York on Jan. 1.
The Lions’ prospects for making the playoffs are promising, but assuming they’re in would be a mistake.
The Lions’ playoff scenarios are numerous and confusing, but if the they can return to the level of play they exhibited to start the season, they will achieve their least-complicated platform to the playoffs.
Winning the final three games will not be easy, but should they lose one, all playoff hopes will not be lost. Lose two, and the chances are slim. Lose all three, and the Lions will likely be watching the postseason from home.
The Lions travel to Oakland to take on the Raiders (7-6) — who are in their own playoff chase — this Sunday, then host San Diego on Dec. 24 before closing out the season in Green Bay on Jan. 1.
Offensive Keys to Success
Matthew Stafford has had a good season at the helm of the Lions in 2011, throwing for 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, ranking him 8th in the NFL.
Stafford’s top target is Calvin Johnson, who has 72 receptions for 1,121 yards and 12 touchdowns.
If Detroit’s passing game can produce against the Raiders (17th against the pass), the Chargers (7th) and Packers (30th), the Lions’ outlook is bright.
Although the Lions’ running game is not its strongpoint, if the running back corps of Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith can keep teams on their toes enough for the passing game to kick in, look out. Morris was injured in the Lions’ Week 14 win over Minnesota but is expected to play against the Raiders. Smith, who missed Week 14, has been practicing with the team and is hopeful for Sunday’s game.
Defensive Keys to Success
Ndamukong Suh returns from a league-imposed, two-game suspension to bolster the Lions’ defense, which ranks 17th overall in the league, 9th against the pass, and 26th against the rush. If Suh can keep his composure and do what he does best — play the game — the Lions defense should fare well against a struggling Raider passing game that ranks 16th in the league.
The Lions’ pass defense will be put to the test against San Diego (8th in passing) and Green Bay (3rd), but may get a reprieve against the Packers, depending on how things unfold during Weeks 15 and 16.
The Lions’ front line and linebackers are opening up the season-ending playoff push against the Raiders’ 6th-ranked rushing game which is led by Michael Bush (764 yard, 7 touchdowns) who is starting in place of the injured Darren McFadden. Keeping the Raiders’ running game in check will go a long way in helping the Lions get off on the right foot.
After all is said and done, will the Lions make the playoffs this season? In a word: YES!!!
What do you think?
Jeff Herbst (born and raised in the Midwest) has had a passion for sports ever since he could first walk and has been a Lions fan through the years (good times and bad). He works with Phoenix Bats, a company that manufacturers world-class wood bats such as their signature composite wood bats for amateur and professional ball players around the world.