As with any NFL season there are plenty of surprises that have emerged so far this year - good ones and bad ones. One of the bigger positive surprises so far is unquestionably the Detroit Lions. Their season win total sat at seven heading into the season, and it seemed like they had no chance at all in their division behind Green Bay and Minnesota - two popular preseason Super Bowl picks. Yet we are only three-quarters of the way through the season, and at 8-4 they have already gone over their total. And they have a two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers and they have beaten Minnesota twice. The division is theirs to lose. The freaking Detroit Lions. The team that lost their best player since Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, to retirement and semi-professional dancing in the offseason. So, how is this happening? And should we be taking these Lions for real? Here are five points to ponder when considering this team:
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Matthew Stafford: The 2009 first-round pick is in the midst of a career year. He has always had plenty of passing yards, so that's not where he is shining. In fact, he should wind up well short of his career best in that regard. He's at a new level in terms of efficiency, though, and he has cut his interceptions down. He's also a much more clutch performer than he has been - he's been reasonably solid on third down all season but has been much better on that front in the fourth quarter than at other times. He's the most complete quarterback he has ever been by far and the easiest to trust that he has ever been. Up until now he was an elite yard gainer. Now he is an elite quarterback. Interestingly, what seems to have helped him most is losing Johnson. Johnson was a huge luxury for a quarterback to have - when you can throw to a guy who is triple covered and know he'll catch it anyway you are in a good place. You also have to get Johnson the ball, though, and that weighs heavy and makes you force things late in games. Overall Stafford looks like he has had a weight lifted from him. If he can stay healthy then his play feels sustainable, and that is the biggest asset this team has going forward.
Coaching: Jim Caldwell could easily have been fired earlier this year. The team's 7-9 record last year was a disappointment, and then he started out 1-3 this year. You have to applaud the front office for their patience, though, and Caldwell for holding the locker room together and on task. This is his sixth year as a head coach in the NFL, and he's likely headed to his fourth playoff appearance. He knows his stuff. I have never counted Caldwell among my favorite coaches, but he is clearly a good fit for this team and is an asset.
How they win: Last week against New Orleans was the first time all season that they won a game without trailing at some point in the fourth quarter. These guys thrive on the comeback. There are good and bad aspects to that. The positive is that we know that they thrive on adversity and that they don't let anything get them down. That's a big positive heading into the playoffs. The downside, though, is that as the stakes get higher and the opponents get better they can't always rely on being able to come back from an early hole. If they can't start to get ahead when they need to then they will have issues. On balance I'm not a huge fan of how they are winning - fun to watch, but less fun to bet on and trust.
Remaining schedule: If the Lions were to draw up an ideal schedule for the rest of the season given what they face they would not create what they have in front of them. They start with a home game against Chicago, and if they don't win that one handily then there are big issues. Then come two really tough road trips - at the Giants and the Cowboys. They need to win at least one of those games to maintain their comfortable spot in the standings, but neither will be an easy situation. And then they finish out at home against the Packers - a game that could mean everything but which the Lions will be working to make meaningless. The Lions haven't played a particularly tough schedule so far, and they have an ugly loss to the Bears in their past. They need to show that they are a strong team if they want to hold on to what they have. We don't really know if they have it in them yet - but we will in three weeks.
Betting performance: So far the Lions have been a pretty straightforward team to bet on. They have covered the spread in each of their eight wins and haven't in their four losses. So, if you think that they are going to win the game then they have been worth a bet, and vice versa. They have also been very kind to totals bettors lately - they have gone "under" the total in each of their last six outings.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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