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The inexplicable Detroit Lions suddenly loom as a playoff threat

Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Expert
29th November, 2016
1

The lesson, as always: never doubt a man named Jim Bob Cooter.

Ever since taking over as offensive coordinator for the reeling Lions in Week 8 of last season, Detroit has gone 13-7 under Cooter’s stewardship, with his offence revitalising the previously trending-towards-blah career of Matthew Stafford.

Following the dumpster-fire cataclysm that threatened after a 1-6 start last season, the Lions salvaged some respect, ascending to mediocrity and a 7-9 record.

But still, there was little to suggest Detroit would be a force this season, given five of those six late victories came against fellow playoff absentees.

‘Force’ might be a little strong to describe this year’s Lions. Like the 8-3 Giants, Detroit’s 7-4 record feels like a mirage, but those seven wins are written in stone, which might be all that matters.

Also, just like the Giants, even though the Lions haven’t been overly impressive in 2016, they have the weapons to suddenly wreak havoc in the playoffs should they get there.

A playoff appearance and a first division title in 23 years is looking increasingly likely for Detroit. They hold a one-game lead over the second-place Vikings, which is effectively a two-game lead given they swept the season series and hold the tie-breaker.

Their remaining schedule is eminently navigable too, with a cupcake game at home to Chicago sandwiched between two difficult but winnable trips to New Orleans and the Giants.

They close the season away to the juggernaut Cowboys and home to the Requiem for a Juggernaut Packers, and 2-3 over this stretch might be enough to get them to the postseason.

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If they get there, it will be a remarkable achievement for a team that started 1-3 and at one stage trailed the Vikings by three games in the division. Some playoff chaos seems like a fitting exclamation mark for one of the most improbable seasons in NFL history.

Every game the Lions have played has been decided by a touchdown or less. Every game the Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter. Since 2008, there have been eight teams who have trailed in the fourth quarter of each of the first 11 games of their season. The combined record of those teams was 4-73.

The Lions, in 66 fewer chances, have that lot beaten by three games.

Some of it, maybe most of it, is luck. But there’s also something undeniable in these Lions that gives them a recipe for success in close games.

The Giants have succeeded in close games (7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less) because they have playmakers on defence, a talented group of wideouts, and an inconsistent quarterback with a habit of becoming strangely brilliant in fourth quarters.

Put your hands up for Detroit if this sounds familiar.

With a 19-5 touchdown-interception ratio and healthy numbers in completion percentage and yards per attempt, Stafford has climbed into the elite quarterback ranks.

He is currently seventh in quarterback rating, ahead of the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Phil Rivers.

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In Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and the no-longer-helpless Eric Ebron, Stafford has some toys to play with in a more diverse offensive ecosystem than ‘Calvin Johnson, do something’.

This group has led Detroit to the ninth best passing game in football per DVOA, which has been enough to compensate for an absent rushing attack.

The defence is where the headaches have been, with DVOA pegging the Lions as the worst unit in all of football heading into Week 12.

Detroit has been throttled through the air and gashed on the ground, but has shown signs of improvement recently, having not conceded more than 20 points over the past five games.

The defensive unit has upside too, with star shutdown corner Darius Slay coming into form, DeAndre Levy returning this week, and Ezekiel Ansah’s latent brilliance ready to surface anytime.

It’s hard to imagine that a team that lost to Brian Hoyer and the Bears is a playoff threat, but the path to a Lions postseason fairy tale isn’t inconceivable.

They have the quarterback and the passing game, a clutch kicker who never misses late (Matt Prater is 25 for 25 on tying or go-ahead field goals in the last quarter or overtime during his career), the defensive line – anchored by Haloti Ngata, breakout star Kerry Hyder, and Ansah – is solid, and Slay can blanket number one receivers.

They’re built in the mould of the 2008 Cardinals, a team with no running game that made it to the Super Bowl on the back of its dominant passing attack and a defence that was just good enough to fake competence for a month.

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A Super Bowl trip isn’t likely for these Lions, but it wasn’t so for Arizona either, or those two Giants teams, or Joe Flacco’s Ravens.

The NFC doesn’t have a team that looks unbeatable.

Seattle is a force, but their offence is shaky, as all offences that manage only five points against Tampa Bay inevitably are. The Cowboys are the favourites, but no team with that defence is unbeatable. New York, Atlanta and Washington are all mortals.

So, why not the Lions?

In the year of Middle America rising to prominence – whether it’s winning NBA championships, World Series, or deciding elections – the Lions have every chance to continue the trend.