MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Mike O'Hara thinks the Lions are poised to make a run at the playoffs

Posted Nov 4, 2013

As the Lions gear up to begin the second half of the season at 5-3, O'Hara looks at the remaining schedule and the Lions' likelihood to win the NFC North

Eli ManningFour of the previous six Super Bowl champions were considered "underdogs" at midseason. (Photo: AP Images)

If lightning can strike for the Ravens, Packers and Cardinals and hit the Giants twice, can it do the same for the Lions?

In the last six seasons, teams that were decided underdogs at midseason -- and in some cases barely treading water near the end -- went on to play in five of the six Super Bowls.

In that group, only the Cardinals failed to win the championship. They lost to the Steelers on a late TD pass. The Giants won twice, and the Ravens and Packers won once each.

That history should say something about the Lions' chances as they come off the bye with a 5-3 record and an inspiring 31-30 victory over the Cowboys in their last game that launched them into the national spotlight and made them stronger playoff contenders.

"Contenders" is the key word in any evaluation of what can happen in the last half of the season. There are no guarantees.

Mentioning the Lions and the Super Bowl will get guffaws from the skeptics and a shake of the head and arched eyebrow from the realists. I get it. There's a reality check here for any team that has never played in the Super Bowl. Hang on, it's coming.

This week's Monday Countdown is not a prediction column. It's a projection column, and there's a difference. I'm projecting what the Lions are in position to accomplish based on their makeup, and if certain factors align in their favor. And the historical element is present. The best teams don't always win the Super Bowl, or even get to it.

This week's Countdown analyzes how the Lions can make a serious playoff run, and where they have to be better. There's also a look back at how underdogs got to the Super Bowl five times in the last six seasons.

And there is the reality check, which is where we start:

1. Reality I: The Lions cannot be considered the best team in the NFC, either by won-lost record or recent history. The Seahawks, Saints, 49ers and Packers all have better records, and all deserve to be rated ahead of the Lions as championship contenders.

That doesn't mean things can't change in the last eight games. Teams can move up -- and down.

The Lions' mindset should be to look no further than the first practice, then the first game, and repeat the process all eight weeks.

They should never look ahead. Leave the projections and predictions to others.

2. Reality II: Teams with the best records don't always win the Super Bowl. The two clearest recent examples of that were the 2007 Patriots and 2011 Packers.

The '07 Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season. Tom Brady threw 50 TD passes, and the Patriots outscored their opponents by 315 points, or 19.7 a game. In the Super Bowl, they were beaten 17-14 by a Giants team that made the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 record.

The 2011 Packers went 15-1 and were coming off a Super Bowl championship the previous season. That meant nothing in the playoffs. In their first game, the Packers were beaten, 37-20, by the Giants.

3. Reality III: The meek shall inherit the Lombardi Trophy. These five seasons out of the last six are examples:

2007: The Giants were 10-6, three games behind Dallas in the NFC East, and made the playoffs as a wild card and No. 5 seed. They won three straight playoff games on the road and beat the unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl.

2008: The Cardinals won the weak NFC West at 9-7, the worst record of all 12 playoff teams. Winning the division got them a home game in the first round. They got to the Super Bowl and lost to the Steelers on a late TD pass.

2010: The Packers got in as a wild card at 10-6 and as a No. 6 seed, beating out the Giants and Bucs in the tiebreaker. The Packers won three straight on the road to reach the Super Bowl, where they beat the Steelers.

2011: The Giants beat the annually choking Cowboys in the last game to win the NFC East at 9-7. They were the No. 4 seed, but the division title let them start the playoff run at home. They beat the Falcons at home, and the Packers and 49ers on the road to reach the Super Bowl, where they beat the Patriots – again.

2012: The Ravens lost four of their last five but still finished first in the AFC North at 10-6, beating Cincy in the tiebreaker and making the field as a No. 4 seed. That let them start the playoffs at home, where they beat the Colts. They beat the Broncos and Patriots on the road and beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Bottom line: Out of five Super Bowl winners in six years, none had a record better than 10-6 or ranked higher than a No. 4 seed.

DeAndre LevyLB DeAndre Levy has four interceptions and plenty of key plays. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

4. Star power: They have to deliver, and the Lions have stars who deliver -- Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Reggie Bush. All four have made winning plays in the first eight weeks, and linebacker DeAndre Levy's stock is rising.

Levy's tackle for a three-yard loss on a running play on the Cowboys' last possession in the last game was huge.

Everything starts with the quarterback, and the Lions have to be ultra-confident that when Stafford has the ball in his hands late in the game, he'll deliver – especially with Johnson as his chief target.

Megatron is even better than his stats indicate. That can't be said about many players in the history of the NFL.

5. Lions' remaining schedule: The last eight games aren't nearly as fearsome as they appeared before the start of the season, when we put away our pens and calculators and the players strapped on their pads to play the games.

The last eight games: at Bears, at Steelers, vs. Bucs, vs. Packers (Thanksgiving Day), at Eagles, vs. Ravens, vs. Giants, at Vikings.

Only the Bears (4-3) and Packers (5-2), who meet in Green Bay in the Monday night game, are above .500.

6. Win the North: Finishing first in the division guarantees playing the first playoff game at home. If nothing else, it would be a treat for the fans. Since winning the championship in 1957, the Lions have had two home playoff games – after the 1991 and '93 seasons.

Ford Field can rock with the best of them, and a home playoff game would produce a decibel count that could be heard all the way to the old Pontiac Silverdome.

To win the North, it's almost certain that the Lions have to beat the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. The Packers already have beaten them once, and a second win would give them a big cushion.

The Packers' remaining schedule is only slightly more daunting than what remains for the Lions. After Chicago, the Packers' home games are against the Eagles, Vikings, Falcons and Steelers. Their road games are against the Giants, Lions, Cowboys and Bears.

7. Streaks: The Lions need to get on a win streak and avoid a losing streak. Their last five games have been win, lose, win, lose, win. If they continue that pattern the rest of the season they'll finish 9-7 and won't make the playoffs.

Hitting a bump in the road shouldn't be fatal. The Lions aren't going to win out. But getting off the rails – something like a three-game losing streak – would be a killer.

8. Health/depth: The Lions are reasonably healthy, with receiver Nate Burleson and special teams ace Montell Owens returning.

The Lions already have shown that their depth can overcome injuries at running back, offensive line and the defensive line, and they've survived at wide receiver without Burleson since Week 3. Kris Durham has emerged as a capable No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, and Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross have shown promise as in-season pickups.

9. What needs to improve: More sacks, fewer big plays allowed on defense, returns by special teams.

The Lions get pressure and hits on the quarterback, but they haven't gotten sacks. Through Week 8, they had 13 sacks, well below the league average of 20.1 per team, and they were 30th in sacks per pass attempt. Pressure is one thing, but sacks cause lost yardage and turnovers.

Giving up big plays has been a problem since Adrian Peterson's 78-yard TD run on the first play of the season against the Lions. Dallas burned the Lions twice for long TD catches – 60 yards by Terrance Williams and 50 yards by Dez Bryant.

One punt return covered 57 yards. The other 18 returns averaged 4.16 yards.

10. Prediction or projection?

No prediction. I vacillated between 9-7 and 10-6 and settled on 9-7 in my preseason prediction for the Lions' record. I could be wrong on both counts. They could be better than 10-6.

The Lions are better than in 2011, when they were 10-6 and made the playoffs as a wild card. Green Bay ran away with the North at 15-1.

My projection for the second half: Nobody should run away from the Lions this year. They're set up to make a run.