This week’s Monday Countdown is not a prediction column on where the Detroit Lions will finish in 2019.
It’s a mandate column on what’s acceptable, and the mandate is to win.
The NFC North has been up for grabs for half of this decade. The other three North teams have had their turn at the top in the last five years: Bears in 2018, Vikings in 2017, Packers in 2016, Vikings in 2015, Packers in 2014.
No team has won back-to-back titles in those five years, and the Lions are the only team that hasn’t finished first. They’ve come close twice, losing final-game showdowns to the Packers in 2014 and 2016.
General manager Bob Quinn said he liked the roster and the makeup of the team in a media session before last week’s preseason game in Cleveland. He should like it. Quinn has worked hard in his four years as GM to build a strong, physical team up front on both sides of the ball.
The Lions’ chief worry is their offensive line, but they’ve added enough players in key areas – defensive line, tight end, and the potential for a running game with second-year back Kerryon Johnson – to work around a weakness.
The Lions should be improved in Matt Patricia’s second season as head coach, but they do not figure to beat out the Bears, who won the North last season with a 12-4 record. The Lions were last at 6-10.
But having double-digit wins and making the postseason as a wild card is not an impossible task. That would represent winning.
Here’s a look at the Lions key areas and players, and a prediction on the NFC North.
It starts at quarterback – as it does with all 32 teams.
1. Matthew Stafford: His 2018 season started bad, with four interceptions in the opening-game loss to the Jets. It was the start of what for him was a lackluster season – 21 TD passes, 11 interceptions, and some costly turnovers.
Stafford was hit hard and often, with 40 sacks, and his passer rating of 89.9 was his lowest since 2014.
The arrival of new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell should add energy to an offense that grew stale under predecessor Jim Bob Cooter. The upgrade at tight end adds a dimension that was missing last year.
Stafford has too much talent, with a work ethic to match it, not to have a bounce-back season.
2. Key player, offense (other than QB): Tight end T.J. Hockenson, and not for what he has to do on his own. As Quinn said, the entire position was rebuilt from last year. Lead by Hockenson and Jesse James, the chief newcomers, the position can be a strength instead of the liability it was last year.
Bevell no doubt will have more options for the tight ends than was shown in the preseason, but it was clear that they are downfield threats. If they perform as hoped – and as expected – it will be a reflection of the overall improvement of the offense.
Key stat: Four tight ends combined to catch 45 passes for the Lions last year. It will be no surprise if James or Hockenson catch that on their own.
3. Biggest question, offense: Offensive line. The entire interior – center and both guards – has been overhauled from last season. The projected starting five did not play together enough in the preseason to get a gauge on how much it’s improved, but lack of depth is an issue.
4. Key player, defense: Tackle Damon Harrison Sr., with edge rusher Trey Flowers a close second. Being signed to a big contract as a free agent creates pressure to perform, and it’s no different for Flowers. Harrison dominated the interior after being acquired in a midseason trade last year, and he should do the same this year.
5. Biggest question, defense: Secondary. There are new starters at safety and the cornerback spot opposite Pro Bowler Darius Slay. They’ll get help if the roster moves lead to more pressure on the quarterback. They should improve on last season’s total of seven interceptions.
Bottom line: The defense should be good from start to finish – not just the second half of the season – in the second year under Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. Familiarity leads to results.
*6. Biggest question, special teams: *Will Jamal Agnew – or someone else – be a consistent return threat the way Agnew was in his All Pro rookie season in 2017?
Kicker Matt Prater, punter/holder Sam Martin and long snapper Don Muhlbach are a formidable trio of specialists.
7. Clean up at home: The Lions made a mess of things at Ford Field last year, starting with the 48-17 abomination against the Jets in the season opener on Monday Night TV.
They were 3-5 overall at Ford Field, and after quality wins at home over the Patriots and Packers in Weeks 3 and 5 their only other win at home was a one-point escape (20-19) over the Panthers.
Winning at home doesn’t guarantee making the playoffs, but it helps. The last two times the Lions made the playoffs they were 7-1 at home (11-5 overall) in 2014 and 6-2 (9-7 overall) in 2016.
8. Win in the North: Divisions games count two because of their impact on the standings. Going 2-4 in the division was another factor that added up to the Lions’ 6-10 record.
Key stat I: The Kansas City Chiefs are the only team to make the playoffs since 2013 with a losing division record: 2-4 in the AFC West, 11-5 overall.
9. NFC North prediction:
1. Chicago Bears: They scored the most points (421) of any team in the division, and gave up the fewest (283) to win the division title after four straight last-place finishes. A lot rides on third-year QB Mitchell Trubisky, but the defense gives the entire team a cushion of support.
2. Detroit Lions: Too much ground to make up in a year to overtake the Bears for first place, but second place is reasonable – especially considering the Lions were second three times in four years before last year’s 6-10 decline.
3. Green Bay Packers: Their vice grip on the North has been loosened, with two straight seasons out of the playoffs after making the postseason eight straight years. Despite his brilliant individual stats – 81 TD passes vs. 15 interceptions – quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ won-loss record is only 20-18-1 the last three years with nine games missed by injuries. He played hurt much of last year.
4. Minnesota Vikings: They were second last year at 8-7-1 after going 13-3 in 2018 to tie the eventual Super Bowl champ Eagles for the NFC’s record in the regular season.
10. Schedule: Two games to watch:
Opener at Arizona: As close to must-win as an opener can get. The Lions are going against rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, and a Cardinals team that was the NFL’s worst in 2018 by won-loss record and the eye test.
Finale vs. the Packers: For the third time since 2014 it could be a final-game showdown for a playoff berth. The first two, won by the Packers, were for the North title. This time it likely would be for a wild card berth.
The atmosphere at Ford Field would be electric, like it was in 2016 until the Packers pulled the plug with a win.