The Monday Countdown preview column for the 2017 season is similar to last year's, but with a twist. Once again, there isn't a prediction of a won-loss record for the Detroit Lions. Instead, there's a mandate for what will be a successful season and a look at the Lions' recent history that shows them in a different light than how many fans think of them.
There's also a mandate for Matthew Stafford. It's well within his reach, especially if the areas on offense where the Lions expect to be better – running game, offensive line – produce as expected.
There are key players on offense and defense, and rating the NFC North from top to bottom.
It ends with the schedule, and how I have a different view on it than most people, the dream game for the Lions and why Lions fans might not want it to happen, and a bottom line projection.
We start with the mandate:
1. Playoffs: That's the starting point for what would qualify as a successful season, but with one more step to take. The Lions have to win a game in the postseason.
The best path to winning in the playoffs is to win the division and start the postseason at home. Twice in the last three seasons the Lions have lost a final-game showdown to the Packers for first place in the NFC North. The schedule is set up for another showdown. Stay tuned on that.
2. Recent history: They've been a contending team for most of the last six seasons. They've made the playoffs three times – all as a wild card – and they've been in contention late in the season every year except 2012, when they lost their last eight games to finish 4-12.
Their overall record in the regular season for those six seasons is 48-48, and they are 27-21 in three seasons under head coach Jim Caldwell.
Those are not the records of a bottom dweller, but it's also not good enough. Teams, coaches and players – quarterbacks in particular – are defined by what they do in the postseason.
Until the Lions win in the postseason, they're stuck with their image.
3. Stafford's mandate: Quarterbacks are defined by getting to the postseason and winning playoff games. The ultimate definition is winning the Super Bowl.
Nobody knows it better than Stafford.
He should take care of his end of the deal by playing like he did in the first 12 games of last season – before he injured a finger on his right (throwing) hand in a Game 13 win over the Bears.
Through 12 games Stafford had 22 TD passes and five interceptions and was mentioned as a legitimate candidate for the MVP award. The Lions beat the Bears to get to 9-4, but Stafford had one TD pass and two picks in that game.
Stafford never complained about the injury, but the results spoke for themselves – three TD passes against five picks in the last four games, and a season-ending three-game losing streak to skid into the postseason as a wild card – with a loss to the Seahawks.
4. Stafford's vision: At the press conference for his contract extension, Stafford expressed his optimism for the season based on the talent level. The offensive line should be strong with the addition of free agents T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, and the rotation at running back should be better with Ameer Abdullah back from the injury that ended his 2016 season in Game 2.
View photos of the 2017 Detroit Lions opening-week roster.
"We're an extremely talented team," Stafford said. "I expect great things from this team. That's part of my job as a leader and as the quarterback of this team to push us to get everything we can out of it.
"And there's no question, that's what I'm going to be doing."
5. Offense: Three key players not named Stafford:
Ameer Abdullah: He's the best runner among the tailbacks and the second best receiver behind Theo Riddick. Abdullah had 18 carries for 101 yards and five catches for 57 before the injury last year. That's 5.6 yards per carry, 11.4 per catch, and 6.87 per touch. That's impact, and defenses have to account for it.
If he plays all 16 games – something people seem to forget he did as a rookie in 2015 – Abdullah can give the Lions 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Greg Robinson: Playing the critical left tackle spot until Taylor Decker returns from a shoulder injury puts Robinson the hot seat on what could be a very good offensive line.
(tie) Marvin Jones Jr., Eric Ebron: Stats tell the story on both. Jones had 18 catches for 408 yards in the first three games – and 37 for 522 in 12 of the last 13 (he missed one game with an injury). Jones needs to play well from start to finish, something he has acknowledged.
Ebron's receiving stats have risen steadily in his first three seasons. The issue for him is consistency and eliminating drops. He has to contribute more than the one TD catch he had last year.
6. Defense: Three key players:
Ziggy Ansah: An ankle injury sustained in Game 2 last year hampered him the rest of the season. With it went the Lions' pass rush. He dropped from 14.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth in 2015 to two sacks. As a team, the Lions fell from 43 sacks in 2015 to 26. It's not all on one player, but a healthy Ansah is a big part of the answer to the pass rush.
View photos of the Detroit Lions initial practice squad for the 2017 NFL season.
Jarrad Davis: He was drafted in the first round to start at middle linebacker and run the defense. It's a lot to put on a rookie, but he has to produce.
Everybody else -- turnovers: The Lions were tied for fourth best in giveaways with 15, but they were tied for fourth worst in takeaways with 14. Turnovers stop drives and change field possession, and the defense didn't do either often enough.
7. The schedule: Tough start? No doubt. Tough all the way through? No doubt again.
But overall, won-loss records can't be expected to carry over from one season to the next.
The Falcons went from 8-8 in 2015 and out of the playoffs for the third straight year to a Super Bowl loss in overtime, and the Panthers went from 15-1 and a Super Bowl loss to 6-10 and out of the playoffs. The Lions play both teams at Ford Field.
As for the tough start, it's an opportunity for the Lions to make a statement early and show their worth. So take advantage of it.
8. Ranking the North:
Packers: They're defending North champs and have won the division five of the last six seasons. They're the favorites until proven otherwise.
Lions: They've finished second two of the last three seasons, and both times they lost to the Packers in a final-game showdown for first place. Keep knocking, and some day the door will open.
Vikings: A solid roster, but one stat should not go unnoticed. Sam Bradford has been a starting quarterback since entering the NFL in 2010 as the first pick overall by the Rams. He missed the 2014 season with an injury. In the other six, he has never had a won-loss record above .500. That includes last season, when he took over as the Vikings' starter in Game 2 and went 7-9 the rest of the season – with two losses to the Lions, and with a league-high completion rate of 71.6 percent.
Bears: Six straight seasons out of the playoffs under three different head coaches, and with one winning record in that span does not bode well for a turnaround.
9. Dream game: A repeat of last season – Week 17, Lions-Packers the division title on the line on Sunday night TV. The atmosphere before the game was electric enough to provide enough power for every building in downtown Detroit.
A repeat would be special – with a different ending for Lions fans than last year's 31-24 Packers victory.
10. Dream game – why not: If you're a Lions fan, better to have the division wrapped up with nothing to play for – except the joy of beating the Packers.
Either way, all or nothing on the line, let it rock.
My bottom line prediction: A second straight playoff berth for the Lions, with Matt Prater playing a key role again.