MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: "Despite everything, and maybe in spite of themselves, I think the Lions will win the North"

Posted Dec 9, 2013

Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara breaks down Detroit's recent slide and predicts their fate in the season's final three games

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

It is crowded at the top of the North, and unlike the holiday season, this is no time to welcome company.

The Lions have welcomed too many teams back into the North race. They could have, and should have, closed the gate on the race when they got their record to 6-3 after winning in Chicago. It was all in front of them to cruise to the North title and fine tune their game for the playoffs.

They didn't do that, though. They've lost three of their last four games, and the race is as tight as it's been since the opening week of the season.

This week's Monday Countdown focuses on the North race with three games left for the Lions and Packers, and four for the Bears, who play at home against the Cowboys in the Monday Night TV game.

Players, trends, coaches, schedules and matchups will decide who wins the North, and which of the also-rans might get a wild card. There's also the best and worst of the NFL after 14 weeks.

We start with the Lions, and what's happened to their once firm grip on the race:

1. Suh said: Ndamukong Suh's words were on the money after the Lions' 21-19 win at Chicago in Game 9 gave them a 6-3 record and a commanding position in the North.

"The most important thing is, we control our own destiny," Suh said. "We don't have to rely on anybody."

Suh was right. The Lions only had to rely on themselves – and the schedule was set up for them to take control of the division. After Chicago, the next three games were on the road against a fading Steelers team, and two home games against the Bucs and Packers.

2. Schwartz said: Head coach Jim Schwartz was right, too, with his comment after the Bears game.

"Honestly, it's too early in the season to be worrying about who's in first place," Schwartz said in his postgame presser.

Schwartz was on the money. With seven games left, nothing was guaranteed. But the Lions were playing good ball, and that was the most important factor in being in first place. It looked like they had broken through.

Instead, they've broken down in three of the last four games.

3. After the Bears game, I wrote: "The Lions' toughest opponent in the last seven (games): themselves."

The point was that the Lions seemed to have a new maturity and were better able to handle winning than they were after the 2011 season, when they made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. They collapsed to 4-12 in 2012 when they played all season as though they'd arrived. They hadn't.

Since beating the Bears, they've done as much to beat themselves as the Steelers, Bucs and Eagles did.

Against the Steelers, they had three turnovers and failed to convert a fake field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.

The offense had 72 yards in the second half, and the Lions – who might be the biggest streakers in all of pro sports – scored all 27 of their points in the second quarter.

Against the Bucs, they had a 25-10 advantage in first downs and 390-229 in yards gained. But they had four interceptions, lost one of three fumbles and had a field goal attempt blocked.

And on Sunday in Philly, it was more of the same. They lost three of seven fumbles and could not hold a 14-0 lead in the third quarter when the defense collapsed. The Eagles blitzed them for four touchdowns and 28 points in the fourth quarter.

Philly scored all 34 of its points in a span of 16 minutes, 6 seconds.

4. Turnover kings: In the last four games, the Lions have had seven interceptions. They've fumbled 14 times and lost the ball eight times.

With the picks and lost fumbles, they've had 15 turnovers in the four games. And there's no sign that it's getting any better. Indoors, outdoors, rain, snow, it doesn't matter. The Lions haven't protected the football.

5. Star power: I understand that it's different feeding the ball to a wide receiver than it is to a running back. Wide receiver is a needy position. The ball has to be thrown to him for him to be effective. For a running back, the quarterback simply can turn, hand him the ball and let him go to work.

However, I kept wondering Sunday why the Lions didn't ride Calvin Johnson harder. He's the best receiver in football, and one of the two or three most dominant players of his era.

And yet only five of Matthew Stafford's passes were thrown in Johnson's direction. He caught three of them for 49 yards.

Seven passes went to Joique Bell, who caught four for 58 yards and dropped a couple others.

Five went to Nate Burleson, who caught two for 18 yards.

Kris Durham was targeted three times without making a catch.

On the Eagles' side, LeSean McCoy had 29 carries for 217 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy had 16 of his carries, 161 of his yards and both TDs after halftime.

I know. They handed him the ball.

But on a bad field, when a receiver should have the advantage, the Lions could have done more to get the ball to Johnson.

6. The real McCoy: On NBC's Sunday night Panthers-Saints game, former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said of McCoy: "This might be the best offensive player in the league."

I disagree. I think Adrian Peterson is the best running back, and Calvin Johnson is the best offensive player. But he can't show it without the ball.

7. NFC Wild Card: For the Lions, it's win the North and start the playoffs at home, or watch the playoffs at home. San Francisco and Carolina are currently in the two wild card spots at 9-4.

8. North stretch run/prediction: Here are the remaining games for the Lions, Bears and Packers, and the outlook for all three based on the Week 14 games:

Lions (7-6) -- Home vs. Ravens (7-6) and Giants (5-8), at Vikings (3-9-1). The Lions have the best remaining schedule of the three North contenders – especially if the Vikings are without Adrian Peterson because of a foot injury.

Bears (6-6) -- home vs. Cowboys (7-5), at Browns (4-9), at Eagles (8-5), home vs. Packers (6-6-1). I wouldn't take the Bears over the Cowboys or Eagles – or the Packers, if Aaron Rodgers plays the last game and the North title is at stake.

Packers (6-6-1) -- at Cowboys (7-5), home vs. Steelers (5-8), at Bears (6-6): If Rodgers comes back, they can sweep all three. If not, they might do the opposite and get swept. The Packers' injury report this week will be awaited eagerly to see if Rodgers is practicing with the offense in his return from a broken collarbone.

Prediction: Despite everything, and maybe in spite of themselves, I think the Lions will win the North. The schedule lines up in their favor, and it's hard to imagine that they'll continue to be so careless with the ball.

And if another team starts shredding the defense by running through the interior for an entire half the way the Eagles did, a member of the defensive staff might notice and make the necessary adjustment.

9. The NFL's best after 14 weeks:

1. Seahawks (11-2): Yes, they lost to the 49ers Sunday, but they've given up only 205 points.
2. Broncos (11-2): Yes, Peyton Manning had another game of 4 TD passes, but they've given up 345 points.
3. Saints (10-3): Hammered in Seattle, then hammered the Panthers at home.
4. Patriots (10-3): Another miracle comeback by Tom Brady to beat Cleveland. Losing Gronk could derail the offense, though.
5. Chiefs (10-3): Special teams, offense and defense were good in whipping Washington.
6. Bengals (9-4): They've won seven of the last nine, and the two losses were back-to-back in OT.
7. 49ers (9-4): They won't win the NFC West, but they'll be tough as a wild card.
8. Panthers (9-4): Offense didn't show up in the showdown at New Orleans.
9. Eagles (8-5): A five-game winning streak is currently the league's longest.
10. Cardinals (8-5): They can score, and the defense is solid.
11. Ravens (7-6): Five straight playoff appearances and making a run for No. 6.
12. Colts (8-5): Clinched the AFC South, but they look like a first-round KO in the playoffs.

10. The NFL's worst:

5. Browns (4-9): At least they'll come out of this season with two first-round draft picks.
4. Vikings (3-9-1): If Peterson's out, they might not win again.
3. Falcons (3-10): From the NFC best 13-3 last year, and it's not a fluke. A rebuild is in order.
2. Washington (3-10): Five straight losses, and Mike Shanahan is talking about meeting with the owner after the season.
1. Texans (2-11): No. 2 in the AFC last year at 12-4, dead last this year and they've already fired Coach Gary Kubiak.