MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: A look at the North and keys to tonight's game

Posted Dec 16, 2013

Mike O'Hara looks at the Lions’ keys to beating the Ravens, how the North stands heading to the finish, the opportunity that lies ahead and more

If the Lions were looking for help Sunday, they didn’t get it. The Bears and Packers both won, which  means the Lions have to count on themselves tonight at Ford Field to keep their share of first place in the NFC North.

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

Win, win, win -- against the Ravens and Giants at home and the Vikings on the road in the final game of the regular season -- and they win the North and host a first-round playoff game.

What happened Sunday, with the Bears winning at Cleveland and the Packers winning at Dallas as the Lions awaited their Monday Night TV game against the Baltimore Ravens, did not change the best-bet formula for the Lions to win the North. Anything short of a three-game sweep leaves them at the mercy of how the Bears and Packers fare.

Sunday’s games, the ones that impacted the Lions and many others that did not, gave another example of how nothing is certain in the NFL. A pair of Matts – Flynn for the Packers, Asiata for the Vikings – played major roles in their team’s games.

This week’s Monday Countdown looks at the Lions’ keys to beating the Ravens, how the North stands heading to the finish, and the opportunity that lies ahead for the Lions – along with the perils they face. There’s also a look at Jeremy Ross, their recent play-maker, and some quirky stats that were discovered on the way to looking up other quirky stats. Decide for yourself what bearing they have on the rest of the season.

We start with a look three keys for the Lions-Ravens, and a look at the North – as Detroit looks more like the North Pole after a weekend of snow:

1. Lions-Ravens keys: There are 10 keys to tonight’s game, and seven of them are turnovers. That’s how much turnovers have hurt the Lions. They’ve lost the ball 15 times in the last four games. No team can give the ball away and win consistently. Two per game is too many, and the Lions have doubled that.

Three other keys:

Pass defense: Be alert constantly for Ravens QB Joe Flacco to look to hit deep passes. He’ll hold the ball a half beat longer than most quarterbacks and risk taking a sack to let his receivers get deep. Flacco has had 17 interceptions, given up 41 sacks.

That makes 58 negative plays from the quarterback position. The Lions must add to that total.

Run defense: The Ravens have not run well all season. They’re averaging 3.0 yards per carry. The Lions need to smother the run.

Penalties: Whether they’re phantom calls, like the two that victimized the Lions last week at Philly, or the real thing, the Lions cannot give away yards or give up second chances with penalties.

My pick for tonight: Lions 31, Ravens 28.

How the North shapes up:

2. Lions (7-6): Pending the outcome of tonight’s game, they’re in second place, a half-game behind the Bears, and percentage points in front of the Packers. Talking about a tight spot.

Remaining games: home vs. Ravens (7-6), home vs. Giants (5-9), at Vikings (4-9-1).

Outlook: Count the Giants as a win, but the Ravens and Vikings are another matter. The Lions are solid favorites to beat the Ravens, and they’ll be favored over the Vikings. And that guarantees nothing.

The Ravens come up big in game games, and they’re playing for their playoff lives.

In the last four games, the Vikings have had more impact on the playoff race than any other non-contender. They tied the Bears in overtime and beat the Packers and Eagles.

If the Lions go into the final game needing to beat the Vikings in their dome, they’ll have to play their best football to win.

3. Bears (8-6): Make the First-Place-Bears. For now. Beating the Browns put them in first, pending the outcome of the Lions-Ravens game. The Lions have the tiebreaker advantage from winning both games in the regular season.

Remaining games: at Eagles (8-6), home vs. Packers (6-7-1).

Outlook: Their season could ride on the Philly game. If the Lions beat the Ravens and Giants, the Bears are out if they lose to Philly. If the Bears and Lions both win out, the Bears finish second.

The Bears are rolling on offense, no matter who plays quarterback, Josh McCown or Jay Cutler. They’re second in the league in points scored with 4-6. Defensively it’s another story. They’ve given up 391, and only three teams have allowed more.

4. Packers (7-6-1): They’ve won two straight with Matt Flynn at quarterback. He lost to the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. They’re alive after Sunday’s rally from a 26-3 halftime deficit to beat Dallas, 37-36.

Remaining games: Home vs. Steelers (6-8), at Bears (8-6).

Outlook: After Sunday, anything’s possible. It could come down to a Bears-Packers showdown Sunday. The Lions hope not.

5. Bears’ QB shuffle: Coach Marc Trestman is the big winner in his decision to bench backup Josh McCown after four starts – two wins and two losses – and put Jay Cutler back as the starter.

After beating the Browns Sunday, Trestman knows his locker room has faith in his quarterback, whether it’s Cutler or McCown.

Cutler threw two of his three TD passes in the fourth quarter as the Bears erased a 24-17 deficit to win going away.

6. Jay vs. Josh: Cutler had three TD passes and two interceptions, and the picks were on speed dial compared to how McCown protected the ball.

The Bears played 255 minutes and 39 seconds with McCown as their starting cornerback. He took over with 2:22 left against the Lions and played the next four games – including an overtime loss to the Vikings.

In that span, McCown attempted 159 passes, completed 111, and threw 10 TD passes against one interception.

Enter Cutler Sunday at Cleveland. His first interception came on his fourth throw, with 4:23 elapsed. His second pick, with 7:46 elapsed in the second half and on his 13th throw of the game, was returned for a Browns TD.

In other words, it took Cutler a little more than 23 minutes to surpass the interception total McCown had in 255 minutes.

7. Lions special game-changer: Some plays energize teams. Turnovers obviously are momentum-changers. So are sacks, physical runs and big returns.

Ross played sparingly for the Packers in 2012 as an undrafted rookie and was cut after a loss to Cincinnati in Game 3 this year. He had a fumble on a kickoff return that the Bengals turned into a touchdown.

“They were looking at my production,” Ross said matter-of-factly with no bitterness toward the Packers when asked during the week why he thought he’d been let go.

Ross went back home to northern California and worked out while waiting for a team to call with a job offer. The Lions signed him to their practice squad on Oct. 8 and promoted him to the active roster on Oct. 19, the day before they played the Bengals.

As a backup receiver, Ross has had five catches. On Thanksgiving Day against the Packers, he caught a five-yard TD pass to give the Lions a 10-10 tie in a game they ultimately won 40-10.

It was a big moment in the game, and when Ross lined up in the slot, he was expecting to get the ball from Matthew Stafford.

“He was going to me all the way,” Ross said.

His biggest plays were in last week’s cave-in loss to the Eagles. Ross scored two touchdowns on returns – 58 yards with a punt and 98 with a kickoff.

Ashlee Palmer, a hard-core special-teams player before he became a starting linebacker, knows how a big special teams play can energize a team.

“It’s a momentum shifter, especially with our offense, as quickly as we can score,” he said. “We get a 30- or 35-yard return, our offense is geeked up, ready to get out on the field.

“The past couple of years, we haven’t had as good on returns as we thought we should have. This year is a lot different.”

8. Vikings welcome Matt: If you think you have pro football figured out and what stars mean to players, think some more after watching the Vikings’ 48-30 victory over the Eagles.

Before Sunday, no running back had carried the ball for the Vikings except Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. Both were out Sunday because of injuries, forcing Matt Asiata to start.

Asiata was an undrafted free agent from Utah who was cut by the Vikings and went to work in a supply warehouse.

He’s been a special-teams player this year and last. Before Sunday, he had three career carries – all last year, for a net gain of nine yards.

Asiata carried the running load against the Eagles. He carried often – 30 times – but not very far. He gained 51 yards. But he scored three TDs, two of them in the fourth quarter as the Vikings broke away from a 27-22 lead to bury the Eagles.

Nobody can win player of the week with 51 yards rushing, but Asiata deserves some mention for his workload.

9. Super streak stat: The Ravens game is one of five in a seven-game stretch in which the Lions play a team that player in the Super Bowl from the 2006 season through 2012.

They beat the Bears, losers to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, and Packers, winners of Super Bowl XLV.

They’ve lost to the Steelers, winners of Super Bowl XLII (and losers to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV).

The Ravens are defending Super Bowl champs, and the Giants, next week’s opponent, won Super Bowl XLII and XLVI.

10. Won-loss stat: Since Game 13 of the 2010 season, the Lions’ won lost record is 25-25, counting the loss to the Saints in the wild-card playoff after the 2011 season.

It’s not great, but it’s progress. Before the four-game win streak in 2010, the Lions were 25-83 opening day of 2004 through Game 12 of 2010.

Since taking over as GM in 2008, GM Martin Mayhew and his pro and college scouts have acquired enough talent for the Lions to compete.

The consensus is that they’re better than a 7-6 team. Whether it leads to winning the North remains to be seen.