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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Comparing Lions and Panthers

This week's Monday Countdown starts with a warning. Make it a plea:

Do not jump to conclusions.

This column is not a prediction that the Detroit Lions will follow the same path as the Carolina Panthers and make it to the Super Bowl next season. It's not even a theory on how they can make it to the Super Bowl, or a variation on the old "if they can, we can too" theme.

However, there are distinct similarities in how the Panthers and Lions rose from the bottom of the NFL. The one big difference: the Panthers already are at the top rung while the Lions are still reaching.

As the Super Bowl hype machines shift to warp speed for Sunday's championship game between the Panthers and Broncos at Levi's Stadium, this is a look at comparative stats, records, odds and trends between the Lions and Panthers.

One similarity: both teams have made multiple playoff appearances after a 2-14 season.

Another: both dropped to a seven-win season the year after making the playoffs with double-digit wins.

This is not a matchup column, but we start with two areas where the Panthers have a clear edge on the Lions and most of the NFL -- and where the Lions must improve to become championship contenders:

1. Running game: The Panthers were No. 2 in the league in 2015, and the Lions were 32nd. That's dead last and is a legitimate indicator of one of Carolina's strengths and the Lions' biggest weakness.

The Panthers averaged 142.6 yards per game on the ground to 83.4 for the Lions. Quarterback Cam Newton contributed heavily to the Panthers' No. 2 ranking with 636 yards, but deducting his yards from the Panthers' total still leaves them almost 20 yards ahead of the Lions with an average of 102.9 per game.

That was not a one-season aberration for the Lions, either. Only twice in the last five seasons have they averaged more than 100 yards a game rushing – 112 in 2013 and 100.8 in 2012.

Bottom line: It's advantage Panthers, by the length of half the football field when it includes Cam Newton's rushing yards.

2. Dynamic defense/turnovers: The Panthers were good on both ends of this crucial equation in 2015. Defensively they were No. 1 in the league with 39 total takeaways, No. 1 with 24 interceptions, and No. 2 with 15 fumble recoveries. Offensively they were tied for seventh with 19 giveaways. Overall, they were No. 1 in turnover differential at plus 20.

The Lions improved their turnover ratio in the second half of the season, but for the full year they were 26th in turnover differential at minus six. A glaring weakness was the dearth of takeaways created by the defense – only 18 overall, tied for 27th fewest.

Bottom line: Advantage Panthers again. Their defense intercepted more passes than the Lions had total turnovers. The Lions need more playmakers on defense than Pro Bowl defensive end Ziggy Ansah.

3. Super Bowl future odds: The Panthers were tied for 18th in the future odds at 40-1 – same as the Lions – to win Super Bowl 50 at the start of training camp. Green Bay was the favorite at 6-1. The Colts were No. 1 in the AFC at 9-1. The Broncos were tied with the Cowboys for fifth at 9-1. The Cowboys finished 4-12.

The Super Bowl 51 future odds are out already, and the Lions are 18th – same as they and the Panthers were last year – but at 50-1. Carolina is in a four-way tie for first at 10-1. The Broncos are tied with the Cowboys for eighth at 20-1. Figure that.

Bottom line: Future odds are meaningless, but they show how the Panthers were regarded almost the same going into the 2015 season as the Lions are for next season.

4. Panthers' buildup: In three seasons (2012-14) before reaching the Super Bowl they were 7-9 in 2012, 12-4 in 2013 and 7-8-1 in 2014. They won the NFC South in 2013-14 and made it three straight division titles with their 15-1 record in 2015.

Bottom line: They were 26-21-1 in three regular seasons from 2012-14. They also won two division titles, were 1-2 in the playoffs, and put it all together in 2015 to post the best record in the league.

5. Lions' buildup: They were up and down the last three seasons (2013-15), a lot like the Panthers were from 2012-14. They were up for one full season, going 11-5 in 2014 and making the playoffs as a wild card. They were down for the other two, with matching 7-9 records in 2013 and 2015, but they had hot streaks both years. They were 6-3 at the start of 2013 and 6-2 in the second half of 2015.

Bottom line: The Lions were 25-23 in the last three regular seasons, made one postseason appearance as a wild card in 2014 and lost to Dallas.

The first three years are the setup. Year four has to be the charm to duplicate what the Panthers have done.

6. Panthers' 2014 low, bounce back: They were 3-4-1 at the halfway point and skidded to 3-8-1 with four losses that gave them a seven-game winless streak – a tie followed by six losses. They rebounded to win their last four games, take the division title with a 7-8-1 record and won their first playoff game at home.

Bottom line: If you believe in momentum carrying over, the Panthers had it going into 2015. They were 14-0 before losing at Atlanta in Game 15. However, the four teams Carolina beat in its four-game winning streak had a combined 3-13 record in their last four games.

7. Lions' 2015 low, bounce back: A 45-10 loss to the Chiefs in London in Game 8 made their record 1-7 and triggered the firing of president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. The 6-2 record the second half likely saved the job of head coach Jim Caldwell and his staff. New GM Bob Quinn decided to retain Caldwell after meeting with him and referenced the team's strong finish in a statement released to the media.

Bottom line: The Lions have to prove that momentum carries over from their finish in 2015 to the start of 2016.

8. How the Panthers made the jump: Quarterback Cam Newton went from good to great and a runaway favorite to be the league's MVP. A good defense became even better, increasing the turnover differential from plus three to plus 20. From start to finish – including a rout of Arizona in the NFC Championship -- they left no doubt that they were the best team in the NFC.

9. How the Lions can make the jump: The start is to win the division title, and it's tougher for them. Unlike the Panthers, who won the NFC South in 2014 with a record below .500, the Lions have to jump ahead of the Vikings (11-5) and Packers (10-6), who had double-digit wins in 2015.

Matthew Stafford has to start the 2016 season the way he finished 2015, when he played like a top five quarterback in the second half. As Quinn said in his introductory press conference, the Lions are lacking in depth. They have to build what he called "the middle class" of the roster, which means offensive line and front seven are the priority.

If Calvin Johnson decides to retire, that also includes building the top one percent. He's that good, that valuable.

10. Bottom line -- 2016 prediction: Too many decisions must be made in free-agency and the draft for any prediction at this point to have any validity. Quinn has been on the job as GM for less than a month, and there's a lot of work to do.

There is no doubt now that the mandate from Owner Martha Firestone Ford is to win.

Just because the Panthers made the jump from 7-8-1 to the Super Bowl in one year doesn't mean the Lions or any of the four other teams that were 7-9 in 2015 can do the same.

It doesn't mean they can't, either.

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