Behind record-setting seasons from quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, the former sad-sack Detroit Lions had their first 10-win season since 1995 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999 last year. That was a pretty big step for a franchise that had eight total wins the previous three seasons, including the NFL’s only 0-16 record in history in 2008.
Despite having almost no running game after Jahvid Best was lost for the season, the Lions finished No. 5 in the NFL in total offense and No. 4 in averaging 29.6 points per game – Detroit exceeded 30 points seven times. The defense was a problem, however. Detroit ranked just 23rd in total defense and allowed 24.2 points per game (also 23rd).
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The Lions haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1994-95, but with a rising superstar in Stafford, the NFL’s most unguardable player in Johnson and stability on the coaching staff and in the front office, this franchise is clearly on the way up. A first-ever NFC North title could be in the offing.
The injury-prone Stafford played only 13 combined games in his first two seasons but stayed on the field for all 16 a year ago and threw for 5,083 and 41 touchdowns. Those are MVP numbers in almost any other year but only made Stafford the NFL’s fourth-best QB behind Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady in 2011. Johnson, meanwhile, led the NFL with 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns and got a huge new contract in the offseason.
Teams will pay for doubling Johnson as Stafford has two good receiving tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler as well as the solid Nate Burleson at receiver. Also look for a breakthrough second season from Titus Young.
The running game again is the question. Veteran Kevin Smith likely will be the Week 1 starter, with Keiland Williams as the No. 2, because of the health concerns of Best and 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure. The former was off to a great start last year but missed the final 10 games after another serious concussion. Leshoure missed the entire season with a torn Achilles’. Best still hasn’t been cleared to practice, but Leshoure has. Leshoure has been suspended for the first two games of the season.
The line is so-so but all five veteran starters are back. Look for 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff to get into the starting five sooner rather than later, however. He has split his time between left and right tackle during camp.
While the offensive line is a question, the defensive front is one of the best in the NFL led by Ndamukong Suh. He can be arguably the most disruptive interior force in the league when he’s not a knucklehead and taking bad penalties. The Lions are hoping for much more this season from second-year player Nick Fairley, although the former Lombardi winner was one of many Lions to have some offseason legal issues. Fairley is fully healthy for the first time since breaking his foot last August. The starting ends, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, are very good. Avril, after 11 sacks a year ago, was franchise tagged by the club and signed the tender.
The Lions had one of the NFL's worst pass defenses over the final six weeks of last season, partially because of injuries to cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas. Houston is OK, while Delmas recently had surgery on his left knee. He should be fine for Week 1 but that’s worrisome. Eric Wright was the only Lions defensive back to start all 16 games in 2011 and he’s now gone. Combined in Detroit’s regular-season finale in Green Bay and their playoff loss in New Orleans, the Lions allowed 90 points and more than 900 yards passing. Former Packers backup QB Matt Flynn essentially got rich in Seattle thanks to the Lions.
2012 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis
The Lions are tied for the 10th-easiest schedule this season with an opponents’ 2011 winning percentage of .492 and six games vs. teams with winning records. Other than the usual Thanksgiving game, the Lions used to be radioactive in terms of national television appearances. But last season’s success changed all that as Detroit four prime-time games set and once again the early-starting Turkey Day matchup. It's the first time in 14 years the Lions have had five nationally-televised games and the second time in their history that four of them will come in prime time.
The Lions could very easily be 3-1 heading into their Week 5 bye, which is earlier than any team likes. Detroit is a 10-point favorite on 5Dimes for the season opener vs. the Rams and probably will be a similar favorite in Week 4 at home against the Vikings. It will be tough to win in Week 2 at San Francisco – the Niners beat Detroit 25-19 in Motown last year – but winning in Week 3 at Tennessee against likely young QB Jake Locker is doable.
Coming out of the bye, Detroit has probably its toughest back-to-back of the season as it visits Philadelphia and Chicago. The Lions were pummeled at the Bears in 2011 in their worst defeat of the season. Following that, Detroit has four road games remaining and three are very winnable: at Jacksonville, Minnesota and Arizona. The Week 14 game at Green Bay could be historic as the Lions have lost 21 straight road games to the Pack. Getting to finish the season with back-to-back home games, albeit vs. 2011 playoff teams Atlanta and Chicago, should be a boost to Detroit’s playoff hopes.
2012 Detroit Lions NFL Futures Odds
On 5Dimes, the Lions are +2800 to win the Super Bowl, +1120 to win the NFC and +580 to play in the NFC title game. Detroit is +515 to win the NFC North. Win totals: 8.5 (“over” -180 favorite), 9 (“under” -130 favorite), 9.5 (under -200 favorite).
2012 Detroit Lions Predictions
Presuming Stafford is healthy, I would take the Stafford-Megatron QB-WR pairing over any other in the NFL. I’m just not overly confident that Stafford will play 16 games again. And Best could be one more hit from a calling it a career, if he’s even back this year. Thus, Stafford could be slinging it another 42 times a game again, and I don’t trust him dropping back that much behind that Detroit line. I also have serious concerns about a secondary that didn’t seem to get any major upgrades. The Lions will be fun to watch but probably are the third-best team in the NFC North. Detroit finishes 9-7 and just misses out on a second wild-card berth in a row.
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