The 2016 Detroit Lions have been creating an undated version of the "Same Old Lions" that could become the team that created the template for the identity of future Lions teams.
This year's Lions are in the lead pack in the race for first place in the NFC North. Not all of their victories – including Sunday's 26-19 survival test over the Jacksonville Jaguars -- pass the eye test for what might be expected of a first-place team.
But the best eye test is to look in the win-loss column in the standings. And where it counts the most and overshadows all other statistics, they're 6-4, winners of two straight, five of their last six, and tied with the defending North champion Minnesota Vikings for first place.
It hasn't all been elegant football that inspires visions of the next NFL dynasty taking root at Ford Field, but the Lions have found ways to overcome their own flaws in addition to what's inflicted by opponents to win more than they've lost.
All six of their wins have been accomplished with winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. Those late-game heroics are why they're in the playoff race – but walking the tight rope.
This week's Monday Countdown features the NFC playoff watch. The primary focus is on the NFC North and where the Lions, Vikings and Packers stand. There's also a look at the leaders in the NFC East, South and West.
In all four divisions, there's a look at where the teams stand, their remaining schedule, and their stock watch and trend – buy, sell, hold or dump.
The playoff watch will be updated throughout the season. The Wild Card races will be included for the last four weeks. By then, some of the pretenders will have faded.
There's also a look at a comment from Lions head coach Jim Caldwell that summed up how the Lions came away with a victory Sunday, along with four good things and four bad things from Sunday.
We start with Caldwell's comment:
1. Complementary football compliment: Caldwell has talked about complementary football – the offense, defense and special teams all playing their roles, and one unit picking up the others when necessary.
That happened against Jacksonville. The offense struggled most of the game, until it put together two long possessions that ended in the go-ahead touchdown and a field goal for the final points.
"During the course of the season you're going to have to win a football game a lot of different ways," Caldwell said. "It can't just be your offense. Sometimes it's going to be your defense. Sometimes it's going to be your kicking game combined with it.
"That's one of the things, I was proud of these guys – the fact that we found a way to win with some other mechanism other than the fact of the strength of our offense."
The special teams scored a touchdown on Andre Roberts' punt return, and punter Sam Martin had another stellar game.
The defense forced three turnovers and scored the Lions' first touchdown on an interception return by Rafael Bush.
The offense didn't do much until the fourth quarter. That's when it strung together two long drives to a touchdown and field goal. Combined, the drives gained 139 yards (with a five-yard penalty included), 22 plays and 11:20 of possession time.
That's when this edition of the same old Lions took over.
2. Same old comeback: It wasn't as dramatic as some of his last-minute touchdown passes, but Stafford got credit for the 26th fourth-quarter game-winning drive. The go-ahead TD was scored by tight end Eric Ebron on a one-yard run with 10:03 left.
3. Four good things Sunday:
- Fourth-quarter D: Jacksonville was held to a net of two yards on eight snaps in the fourth quarter. The last possession ended on an interception by Tavon Wilson.
- Sam Martin's punting: It's getting to be routine to say this, but he made a difference in field position. On six punts he had a gross average of 48.5 yards and a net of 48. Two punt returns by Jacksonville gained a net of three yards.
Jaguars punter Brad Nortman had a gross average of 40.8 yards on six punts and a net of 31.7.
The net-yards differential adds up to 100.8 yards in favor of the Lions. That's a full football field, plus one step.
- Andre Roberts: He's been a super role player. In addition to his 55-yard punt return touchdown, Roberts had one catch for 44 yards. He has three TDs for the season – two punt returns and one reception.
- Ziggy Ansah: He's still looking for his first sack, but quarterbacks beware. He continues to recover from a severe ankle injury sustained in Game 2 and looks more like the pass-rush star who had 14.5 sacks last year. Ansah had five tackles and four of the Lions' five quarterback hits Sunday.
4. Four bad things Sunday:
1. Run game: There wasn't one. The Lions gained 14 yards on 19 runs. That's 26.53 inches per attempt and does not include Stafford's one-yard gain on a scramble or one-yard loss on a last-play kneel-down.
2. Offensive line: It had been developing, but Sunday was a step back. See the run stats above for evidence.
3. Darius Slay's return: He missed the last game with a hamstring injury and had a tough day Sunday. He was penalized for holding and interference and was in coverage on two touchdown catches.
4. Marvin Jones Jr.: He was held to one catch for the second straight game and has just five catches for 53 yards in the last three games. PLAYOFF WATCH
With six games left, this is the playoff watch for the top three teams in the NFC North along with the leaders of the NFC East, South and West. It will be expanded with four games left to include contenders for the two NFC Wild Card berths.
Detroit Lions (6-4)
Where they stand: Tied with the Vikings in win-loss records but with two big advantages – a road win over the Vikings in Game 9, and playing the Thanksgiving Day rematch at Ford Field.
Next game: Home vs. Vikings, Thanksgiving Day.
Rest of schedule: At Saints (4-6); home vs. Bears (2-8); at Giants (7-3) at Cowboys (9-1); home vs. Packers (4-5).
Stock watch/trend: Five wins in the last six games make the Lions a buy because of a rising trend. But don't take plunge unless there's a win on Thanksgiving Day. And still don't go all in. The schedule gets tougher.
Minnesota Vikings (6-4)
Where they stand: Stopped the skid at four straight with a quality win at home Sunday over the sagging Arizona Cardinals.
Next game: At Lions (6-4) on Thanksgiving Day.
Rest of schedule: Home vs. Cowboys (9-1); at Jaguars (2-8); home vs. Colts (5-5); at Packers (4-6); home vs. Bears (2-8).
Stock watch/trend: Conservative advice -- hold until after Thursday's road game with the Lions – but sell short or buy if you have a hunch on a win or loss.
Green Bay Packers (4-6)
Where they stand: Injuries and a lack of playmakers hurt their chances to make the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
Next game: At Eagles (5-5).
Rest of schedule: Home vs. Texans (6-3 before tonight's game); home vs. Seahawks (7-2-1); at Bears (2-8); home vs. Vikings (6-4); at Lions (6-4).
Stock watch/trend: Sell now, or run the risk of papering the walls with worthless stock. The Bears are the only team left on their schedule that is currently below .500.
Where they stand: Hard to argue that they aren't the best team in the NFC.
Next game: Home vs. Redskins (6-3-1)
Remaining schedule: At Vikings (6-4); at Giants (7-3); home vs. Bucs (5-5); home vs. Lions (6-4); at Eagles (5-5).
Stock watch/trend: Do it Jerry Jones style. Buy a lot. Then buy some more. And brag about it.
Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
Where they stand: A two-game lead and four of the last six at home means it would take a major collapse to blow the division title. MVP candidate Matt Ryan has to get his team to the finish line.
Next game: Home vs. Cardinals (4-5-1).
Remaining schedule: Home vs. Chiefs (7-3); at Rams (4-6); home vs. 49ers (1-9); at Panthers (4-6); home vs. Saints (4-6).
Stock watch/trend: Buy, but be cautious. The Falcons folded last year and they've lost three of the last five.
Seattle Seahawks (7-2-1)
Where they stand: They're the only team in the NFC West over .500. It's a walkover.
Next game: At Buccaneers (5-5)
Remaining schedule: Home vs. Panthers (4-6); at Packers (4-6); home vs. Rams (4-6); vs. Cardinals (4-5-1); at 49ers (1-9).
Where they stand: The schedule favors them. None of their remaining opponents has a winning record.
Stock watch/trend: Splurge now and collect dividends.