It’s ‘fess up time, and my turn in the sweatbox (as kids, that’s what we called going to confession) forces me to admit that I felt better in April than I do today about my prediction for the Lions’ won-lost record.
I’m sticking with my pick: 11-5, good enough to make the playoffs, but probably a little short of beating out the Packers for first place in the NFC North.
Conditions have changed since April, when it looked like
Even with those two problems going into the season, don’t look for the Lions to take a pratfall after last season’s 10-6 record. Too many players worked too hard and too long for the team to backslide.
“We can’t,” said linebacker
This week’s Monday Countdown Preview focuses on where the Lions stand going into Sunday’s season-opener against the Rams at Ford Field.
There’s a look at how the schedule breaks down for the Lions to win 11 games, the team’s strengths – passing game, front seven on defense – and the major question marks at running back and secondary.
There’s also a look at what the Lions need from their stars –
We start with the state of preparedness:
1. Validate: Nothing can be done about injuries. They happen. But the team’s mental condition is another matter. The Lions had missed the playoffs 11 straight years before getting in last season as a wild card.
Whenever a team makes a quantum leap, there is a question of whether the players have gotten satisfied and take winning for granted.
“We’re not complacent by any means,” said wide receiver
“We have a good idea who we were. Now, it’s just tightening up the loose ends so we can be as close to excellent as we can be, come the regular season.”
Winning in the NFL is tough. It’s tougher than losing. The weight of winning and playing big games is enormous.
The Lions have to be ready to carry that load, and it starts with winning games they should win. Read on:
2. Heading North: They should beat the Vikings twice and split with the Bears. The Packers’ passing game always poses problems. Anything less than 3-3 in the North is unacceptable.
I like the Packers to repeat as division champs. Even if they fall three or four games from last year’s 15-1 record, they should have enough to win the division.
The Bears are a popular pick to finish second, but they have age on defense and issues up front protecting quarterback Jay Cutler. In a long season, those can be fatal flaws.
And the Vikings are in a serious rebuilding mode – more serious than anyone in the franchise could have imagined going into last season.
Put the Lions down for 3-3 in the North, at worst.
3. Schedule soft spots: No coach will ever consider any opponent an easy one, but on paper, the Lions should pad their record against the NFC West and AFC South.
Against the NFC West, they’re home against the Rams and Seahawks and on the road against the Cardinals and 49ers. Count that as 3-1, with a loss to the 49ers.
Against the AFC South, they’re at home against the Colts and Texans and on the road against the Titans and Jaguars. The Texans might be the class of the AFC, but the game’s at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day, and the Lions have to win turkey day eventually.
Against the South, make it 3-1.
It adds up to 6-2 against the AFC South and NFC West.
4. Swing games: At Philadelphia in Game 5 will be one of the three hardest roads games, along with the 49ers and Packers.
Game 15, at home against the Falcons on Dec. 22, won’t be a breeze, but playing at Ford Field late in the season in a playoff run, in front of a home crowd stoked for the holidays is an edge for the Lions.
Adding it up – games in the North, soft spots, swing games – I see 10-6 as rock bottom.
Win won more games, and it takes them to 11-5.
And lose one more, and it’s 9-7 and the worry beads, séances and novenas come out on making the playoffs.
5. Matthew Stafford: He has risen rapidly in stature to the point where he’s in the class of quarterbacks who are measured more by games won than by yards and TD passes.
Last season’s stats were great: 5,038 yards, 41 TDs, a 10-6 record. And he was healthy for all 16 games, plus the playoff loss at New Orleans.
Stafford can have fewer passing yards and TDs and be better. The key is efficiency.
No question, the Lions have a pass-oriented offense, and Stafford can throw with the best. But if the run game blossoms and his passing yards decline, he’s comfortable with that, too.
Nothing seems to rattle Stafford. He handles every situation with aplomb, whether it’s rushing defenders or gushing fans.
“The great thing about him, nothing is ever about him,” says offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. He has the mental makeup to lead a team.
6. Calvin Johnson: The stat to watch for Megatron is 1,848. That’s the one-season record for receiving yards, set by Jerry Rice in 1995.
Johnson can break it. He is the best non-quarterback in the NFL.
He’s like the common cold. There is no cure for what he can do to a defense.
When it doubt, throw it to Calvin.
7. Ndamukong Suh: In his own words, Suh characterized his performance last season as “indifferent,” after a bust-out rookie season when he had 10 sacks and was named a starting defensive tackle on the NFC Pro Bowl team.
There was more drama than production in his second season. He was drafted and paid to be a great player. If he isn’t great, or close to it, it’s a disappointment.
8. Cliff Avril: He put pressure on himself by rejecting a long-term contract and playing on the one-year franchise tender that pays him $10.6 million for this season.
Avril needs to be the same force at left defensive end as he was last season, when he produced 11 sacks, four pass breakups and six forced fumbles.
If Avril gets double-digit sacks, it means the front four is doing its job – getting pressure from the tackles that frees him to win one-on-one matchups.
9. Role players: There are plenty of assets in the passing game.
Coverage units on special teams improved in the last two preseason games.
At age 42, kicker
AFC – Patriots (East), Ravens (North), Texans (South), Broncos (West). Wild Cards – Bills and Chiefs. AFC Champs – Broncos.
NFC – Packers (North), Cowboys (East), Falcons (South), 49ers (West). Wild Cards – Lions and Saints. NFC Champs – Packers.
The power's in the NFC. Two NFC teams are better than two AFC teams who'll make the playoffs.
Super Bowl: Packers over Broncos.
11 The NFL’s top dozen (last year’s regular-season records in parentheses):
1. Packers (15-1): Still hurting from last year’s first-round playoff exit.
2. 49ers (13-3): Defense makes up for average QB in Alex Smith.
3. Broncos (8-8): Peyton Manning lifts them to double-digit winners.
4. Texans (10-6): Could make first Super Bowl if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy.
5. Patriots (13-3): Tom Brady has to operate behind questionable offensive line.
6. Ravens (12-4): Losing Terrell Suggs hurts, but they’re solid everywhere.
7. Cowboys (8-8): Adding cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr makes them NFC East favorites.
8. Lions (10-6): Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, front seven on defense deal another wild-card hand.
9. Falcons (10-6): Playoff team, but not a playoff winner.
10. Saints (13-3): Drew Brees keeps them as contenders.
11. Bears (8-8): Offense is better, but age on defense a concern.
12. Eagles (8-8): A playoff team if Michael Vick can play 13 games, and I don’t see that happening.
12 The NFL’s bottom 5:
5. Rams (2-14): Having Jeff Fisher to coach and Sam Bradford healthy is a good start on improving.
4. Jaguars (5-11): Not quite Florida’s worst pro team.
3. Dolphins (6-10): Already looking to next year.
2. Vikings (3-13): Webb, Jackson, McNabb, Ponder – you think they don’t miss the drama of Brett Favre?
1. Colts (2-14): Andrew Luck will be lucky to match Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 3-13 in 1998.