By Will Burchfield

With the Lions’ playoff chances beginning to slip and a winner-take-all game versus the Packers taking shape on the horizon, a common sentiment has taken root within the team’s fan base.

“If I had told you three months ago we’d have a chance to win the division on the final day of the season,” so it goes, “you would have taken it.”

Fair enough. It’s a stance informed by preseason projections, which painted a pretty grim picture for Detroit. Nearly every pundit and fan pegged the Lions as a sub-.500 team and gave them almost no chance to make the playoffs, much less win their division. Considering they’re in first place in the NFC North with two games to go, it feels like the Lions are playing with house money.

So, yeah. You take it.

But what if the Lions lose their next two games, cede the division title to the Packers and miss the playoffs altogether? Do we still view their season through the same optimistic lens? Does the current sentiment morph into a more compromising one?

“If I had told you three months ago we’d win nine games this season,” so it might go, “you would have taken it.”

But you can’t. Not knowing what you know now.

Forget about expectations changing based on the Lions’ current position. Forget about the ceiling being raised based on the possibilities before them. This has nothing to do with what the team is capable of today.

The premise that a 9-7 season would have been acceptable is based on the assumption that it would have signaled improvement. And, a slight uptick in wins aside, can we really say the Lions have taken a step forward in 2016?

Fist of all, their 9-5 record could easily be 5-9. (Heck, it could easily be 1-13.) They’ve turned mostly mediocre play into a strong win-loss mark through late-game magic, the kind of magic that tends to hide larger team flaws. Aside from Detroit, the NFL’s nine-win teams have an average point differential of plus-60. The Lions check in at plus-16.

Second of all, they’ve amassed their strong record against a slew of mediocre opponents. In searching for the Lions’ most impressive victory to date, it’s hard to come up with an answer. Was it Week 1, in Indianapolis? Week 7, at home against the Redskins? Week 13, in New Orleans? The latter was the Lions’ best performance of the season, the only time this year they’ve outplayed an opponent from start to finish, but it also came against a team that is 6-8 and hasn’t made the playoffs in three years. Against teams currently above .500, the Lions are 1-4.

After considering the holes in their record, compare the 2016 Lions to the 2015 Lions. While this year’s team has made strides in some areas, so has it regressed in others, rendering the idea of progress pretty much moot.

The defense has been better, yes. After surrendering 25 points and 346 yards per game in 2015, the Lions are holding opponents to 20.4 points and 349 yards per game in 2016. They’ve made particular improvements in defending the run, yielding about 15 fewer rushing yards per game this season than last. (If defensive coordinator Teryl Austin lands a job as a head coach in the offseason, of course, the Lions may have a tough time carrying this momentum into 2017.)

But the offense has been worse. That may seem like a surprise given all the praise thrust in the direction of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but the numbers don’t lie. In Cooter’s nine games as O.C. last season, the Lions put up 24.3 points and 346 yards per game. This season, with Cooter having had a full offseason to implement his playbook, the Lions are down to 21.5 points and 335 yards per game. Sure, the offense has often looked great at the end of games, thriving in desperate circumstances, but that’s long been a mark of quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Special teams have been strong all season long, especially in regard to the efforts of punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater. The former ranks second in the league in net average punting yards (43.9) while the latter ranks fourth in field goal percentage (91 percent.) But this duo was lethal last year as well, so it’s hard to say the Lions have made strides in this area.

What you’re left with is a team whose defensive gains have been nullified by its offensive shortcomings, progress on one side of the ball offset by regression on the other. That’s why the Lions’ success feels somewhat hollow. And that’s why a record of 9-7 wouldn’t represent a positive season or a meaningful step forward. You may have taken it back in August. You don’t take it now.

For the Lions to make this season count, to make it really stand for something, they need to lock up the NFC North either this weekend or next and then make some noise in the playoffs. Otherwise, they will have exceeded expectations without making year-to-year progress. And in looking to 2017 and beyond, where’s the positive in that?

Comments (5)
  1. Chris Decker says:

    And the negatives just keep on coming. Spun with a pinch of optimism, Will Burchfield’s article is looking at the here and now. That is being shortsighted. Now hear this from a fan who is looking at the big picture and not just one season and certainly not just a couple of games.

    There is a way you win in the NFL and if you don’t follow protocol … you get no respect whatsoever. Welcome to this article. Using hypotheticals, a dim picture has emerged here that feeds the sensationalism of the Same Old Lions (SOL) Fans and in the world of journalism … negative sells.

    According to Will Burchfield, given the premise of three months ago, had you been told the Lions would win 9 games would you take it? But you can’t. Not knowing what you know now. In fact, Mr. Burchfield goes on to say, “(The Lions) have turned mostly mediocre play into a strong win-loss mark through late-game magic, the kind of magic that tends to hide larger team flaws.” As for me, I predicted the Lions would finish 10-6. They are one win and one loss from doing just that.

    Now, Mr. Burchfield’s premise isn’t exactly true.

    First, let’s look at the conventional way you win in the NFL and then we’ll return to the “magic” that Will refers too and either hasn’t taken the time to understand or has ignored the realities of the Lions success.

    To win in the NFL there has been a long belief you win with good defense. The Lions are listed as just above average, 14th Total Defense. They give up an ungodly completion percentage. The Lions defense is next to last in QBR (quarter back rating), only Cleveland is worse. The list goes on, and yet, the Lions have a 9-5 record and control their own destiny from their 1st place position in the NFC North.

    Since conventional wisdom says defense wins championships, I’m going to focus on defense.
    Let’s compare conventional wisdom –
    Dallas 32:39
    Detroit 30:20
    New York Giants 27:22 (Goes against the grain doesn’t it?!)

    Dallas 1st
    Detroit 11th

    PASS DEFENSE / Yards Per Game
    Dallas 28th
    Detroit 16th
    PASS DEFENSE / Completions Per Game
    Dallas 31st
    Detroit 29th

    Dallas 5th
    Detroit 10th

    So, the Lions can play defense. In fact, very similar numbers to the Cowboys.


    The advantage a team like Dallas has over nearly every team in the NFL is they are very good on both sides of the ball. Where Detroit has the advantage over nearly every team in the NFL is they practice what other teams take for granted and the Lions are very good at it.

    Because of the Lions bend but don’t break defense they have held their opponents to 20 points or less in 9 straight games. In other words, Detroit keeps the score down so their offense can win at the end of the game, thus their 8 comeback wins this year … and it isn’t luck.

    MAGIC. Jim Caldwell has his team practice the two minute warning just like every other team in the NFL but it’s different. He presents his team, every week, with the most difficult two minute real game situation from the week before, college or pros … and then he takes away all of their timeouts.

    As a result, the Lions offense is comfortable executing under duress where the opposition isn’t. The results speak for themselves. Is it conventional? No. Does it work? Yes. Any team that takes shortcuts in practice will pay the price during the game. And over and over the media has refused to accept this as a winning strategy.

    Since the Lions margin of victory is 1.1 points per game, being able to put points on the board at the end of a game proves to be, literally, the margin of victory.

    So, how did Jim Caldwell arrive at such a unique approach to winning? Step One. Bob Quinn is in his first year as the Lions GM. He brought in depth on defense and a couple of significant starters on offense. His draft class focused on offense, specifically in the trenches, the OL. As a result, Detroit may not have star power, but given the injury rate in the NFL, they finally have solid backups that can be plugged in and keep going. Something his predecessors either failed to do or just plain ignored it. Either way, this is Step One of Bob Quinn’s bigger picture.

    Step Two is about to begin. The Big Picture is beginning to take shape. Another round of free agents and another rookie draft class will solidify a Lions roster that failed to impress the media and NFL experts last year. The beginning of the end of Step One is now. Mr. Burchfield questions whether the Lions can see progress this year. I see this, the Lions numbers mirror those of the glorified Cowboys much more so than the SOL of the past. This season has already been a success. Winning the division would be the coup de gras. Winning a playoff game, well that would simply send notice to the experts just how wrong they were about the Detroit Lions all the way up to the next to last week of the season. Ah yes, that would be this week.

  2. really LOVE to see the media trying to cover their ……………. positions………..anticipating yes another Lions failure. They all seem to be looking forward to feast on it, and to tell everyone that Rodgers was right when he said that the Packers could run the table etc etc. They may end up being right after all. BUT …….. IF we end up winning the Division, I really don’t want to hear any of them singing praise to the Lions or Stafford or anyone in Detroit- Always the same trash of everybody against Detroit

  3. And….Mr. Burchfield……in your analysis, you forget to mention another potential scenario. True, our 9-5 record could easily be 5-9 or even 1-13 (really?). I would say it could also be 11-3 or 12-2 if the NFL referees would treat the Lions the same way they treat the Packers or other NFL-friends-and-family team. The touchdown taken away from Eric Ebron against the Titans. The bad calls on the Houston Texans game. The longest ever PI call against the Packers. the catch? by Odele Beckam last Sunday that was part of a drive that ended up on a touchdown. You get the idea………………..And on the games we won by a very small margin (i.e. Minnesota just to name one….) you factor the bad calls and those should have been 10+ points difference. Not even a close game.

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