O'Hara's Monday Countdown: Do the Lions match up with the other teams in the North?

Posted Nov 12, 2012

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses on the Lions and their North rivals and whether they've have played their way out of playoff contention.

A hard-core Lions fan wasn’t very happy Sunday night after a few hours to dwell on the Lions’ 34-24 loss at Minneapolis earlier in the day. But amid the head-shaking and the deep frown wrinkles, he had a theory on why the Lions have slid into last place in the NFC North.

“They just don’t match up with the other teams in the division,” he said. "Think about it. They’re 0-and-3 in the division. They don’t match up with the other teams.”

There are a lot of theories on what ails the Lions, and they all seem more valid after a loss. The offense takes too long to get on track. The defense can’t get off the field. Calvin Johnson doesn’t have enough passes thrown his way. Calvin Johnson has too many passes thrown his way. The front four doesn’t pressure the quarterback. Special teams aren’t special.

There is ample evidence from the first nine games that three of those theories are true. The offense has been a slow-starter all year, the front four hasn’t gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback, and special teams have not been special.

And maybe – stressing maybe – because of all of that, they don’t match up with the other teams in the North. Actually, I don’t really buy the theory, but it’s worth looking into it, at least on the surface.

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses on the Lions and their North rivals and whether they've have played their way out of playoff contention. There is also a look back at Sunday’s game, a look ahead to the next game against Green Bay and beyond, some thoughts about the Lions’ personnel, and the best and worst of the NFL after 10 weeks.

We start with the Lions and the North.

1.Matchups: I honestly don’t think it’s a matchup issue – but the evidence suggests my friend the fan might be right.

They’ve lost twice to the Vikings, and in the first game at Ford Field they scored their only touchdown with less than three minutes left in the game.

In Sunday’s road loss, they scored three TDs, but the first one didn’t come until 2:55 was left in the third quarter.

Their other loss to a North opponent was 13-7 to Chicago, and their only TD came with 30 seconds left.

In all three games, that’s a long time for an offense to be held out of the end zone – 57 minutes in the first Minnesota game, 42 minutes in the second Minnesota game, and 59:30 against Chicago.

2.  Records: The Lions are the only team in the division with a losing record, and they’re 0-3 in the division.

3. Stats: The Lions have scored fewer points than any team in the division (216) and allowed more (222). That includes the Vikings, who’ve given up 221 points but are the only North team that’s played 10 games. Detroit, Chicago and Green Bay have played nine. Minnesota has a bye next week.

4. North record: The North was created in 2002, when the NFL added Houston as an expansion franchise. The NFC and AFC were realigned, from three divisions with four teams in each division.

Since 2002, the Lions have never had a winning record in the North. Their best records were 3-3 last year and in 2007.

5. Personnel: The won-lost record – more accurately, the losing-losing record – against North teams cannot be discounted, but personnel is the No. 1 reason I disagree with the theory about the Lions not matching up with the North.

Calvin Johnson of the Lions, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Adrian Peterson of the Vikings are three of the top 10 players in the NFL, let alone in the North.

With all due respect to the Jay Cutler fan club in Chicago, Matthew Stafford is the second best quarterback in the North and one of the top 10 – at least - in the league. That will be born out over time.

On a given day, any player can look good. For example, Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway made a fine interception early in the game. He broke on a pass meant for Brandon Pettigrew and caught it with his hands – like a tight end, not a linebacker.

A typical great play by Greenway – who really is a good player -- right?

Nope. After the game, Greenway joked about getting his first interception since 2009.

“I caught this one  . . . finally,” he told reporters in Minneapolis.

6. The Lions contending: Losing to the Vikings put a serious dent in their record. Before Sunday, the Lions were a team on the rise because of a 3-1 record in the previous four games. Sunday’s loss diminished that, which shows how important games are in the second half of the season.

The Lions had a tough early schedule, playing six of the first nine on the road. Five of the last seven are at Ford Field, starting with Green Bay.

“We have some games at home,” Stafford said. “We have to take advantage of them – three games in a row at home here against good football teams.”

The Packers have won four straight to get to 6-3 and a game behind the Bears in the North.

The Texans, up next on Thanksgiving Day, are 8-1 after winning at Chicago Sunday night.

Game three in the home stands is against the Colts, 6-3 and with a four-game winning streak.

I think the Lions can get into Wild Card contention, but that’s different than predicting they’ll make the playoffs. Losing to the Vikings made that a long shot.

“The Chargers and the Lions are two teams that will not make the playoffs,” Rodney Harrison said on NBC’s Bears-Texans telecast Sunday night. “The Chargers because they are not very good, and the Lions because they play in a tough division. They are done.”

At least he didn’t say the Lions don’t match up.

7.  Head shots: Calvin Johnson took two hits to the head from Vikings defenders Sunday. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley was fined for a hit to Johnson’s head in the fourth quarter. There was no penalty on the other play.

Johnson said he did not think the Vikings were head-hunting, but Stafford didn’t sound quite as sure.

“I don’t know,” Stafford said, without calling out any Vikings player. “You never like seeing anybody get hit in the head. It’s part of the game they’re trying to get rid of, which I think is a good thing. There’s not a whole lot of place for that in this league.”

Watching replays, it looked like Brinkley lowered his head and drilled Johnson on the left side of his helmet. A fine almost certainly is forthcoming for that hit.

8. Just for kicks: The Lions might consider signing a kickoff specialist for the last seven games to even the playing field with teams like the Vikings. Blair Walsh had touchbacks on six of his eight kickoffs. Walsh has 41 touchbacks for the season, a franchise record – with seven games left.

A kickoff specialist could impact field position, save wear and tear on Jason Hanson’s golden left leg, and also eliminate the possibility of Hanson being injured making a tackle on a return, as he did Sunday.

Hanson knocked Vikings returner Marcus Sherels out of bounds after a 41-yard return with the second-half kickoff.

9. Tackle stats: They don’t always tell the story of how a defensive player performs, but they are interesting. Hanson’s tackle Sunday gave him as many as Ndamukong Suh was credited with in the official play-by-play for the last two games.

 Suh was credited with one tackle Sunday and none in last week’s win at Jacksonville.

10.   Third downs: The Lions were horrible on third-down conversions Sunday because they were bad on first and second down. They converted only one of nine third-down attempts, and that came in the fourth quarter.

The average gain the Lions needed to convert on third down was 10.2 yards.

11. The NFL’s best after 10 weeks:

1. Texans (8-1): Good, gritty win at Chicago.

2. Falcons (8-1): Defense couldn’t stop the run in first loss to Saints.

3. Broncos (6-3): Four-game win streak, and the schedule gets soft.

4. Ravens (7-2): Never gave Oakland a chance in a 55-20 crusher.

5. Bears (7-2): They have to be worried about concussion sustained by Cutler in loss to Texans.

6. 49ers (6-2-1): Alex Smith left with concussion in tie with Rams.

7. Packers (6-3): Coming off a bye to play at Detroit with a four-game win streak.

8. Colts (6-3): Already won three times as many games as last year (2-14).

9. Patriots (6-3): They’ll win the AFC East on offense, but defense is a worry.

10. Steelers (5-3): They’ll be 6-3 after drilling KC Monday night.

11. Seahawks (6-4): Keep waiting for Russell Wilson to falter, but he hasn’t.

12. Giants (6-4): Keep waiting for Eli Manning to come out of it, but he hasn’t.

12. The NFL’s worst:

28. Panthers (2-7): They might get revived a little.

29. Eagles (3-6): Five straight losses, and Michael Vick has a concussion.

30. Browns (2-7): Can’t score, and new owner has everyone nervous about jobs.

31. Chiefs (1-6): Next loss will be Monday night wipeout to Steelers.

32. Jaguars (1-8): Six-game losing streak, and no spark anywhere.