Home > NFL > LiveBall Sports’ 2011 NFL Playoff Preview: The Detroit Lions can win the Super Bowl if…

LiveBall Sports’ 2011 NFL Playoff Preview: The Detroit Lions can win the Super Bowl if…

It hasn’t been the kind of season that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was hoping for.  Stafford is asked to do a lot.  He leads the NFL in passing attempts.  And he’s averaging more than 300 yards per game.  But as you may imagine for a young quarterback asked to throw that many times, it didn’t always work.  In losses this year, Stafford posted underwhemling statlines like 15 for 32 for 183 yards and a touchdown (vs. Atlanta), 33 for 63 for 329 and a touchdown with four interceptions (at Chicago), 32 for 45 for 276 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions (vs. Green Bay on Thanksgiving), and a 227 yard effort at home against Minnesota in a game where the Lions barely held on to go to 8-5.

It hasn’t always been easy for Matthew Stafford, which is an emotion I attempted to capture in this December 9th article on the Lions.  So what’s the difference on a Lions team that has gone 3-0 since that article was written and has beaten two AFC West teams fighting for their playoff lives?  Well, at some point during the Oakland game, it’s possible that the difference has been quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Stafford struggled for much of the Raiders game, and on a 4th quarter drive that the Lions coaches on the sideline called a “must have,” Stafford treated it as such: he tried to make a play down the field outside the pocket, looking for Calvin Johnson.  Raiders DT Tommy Kelly stripped the desperate Stafford, and LB Aaron Curry recovered the fumble for a Raiders touchdown to go up 27-14.  Kelly had put the Lions playoff hopes on life support.

But there was a catch.  Matthew Stafford’s performance since that play by the Raiders looks like this: 38 for 54 for 516 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs.  And two wins.  The sample size is too small to suggest that Stafford has turned a corner as of late.  But he has 8 TD passes to no interceptions since the Lions last loss.  And against the Chargers at home with a chance to send his team to the playoffs, Stafford looked like the best player on the field on either team.  He was sensational.

The Lions can only go somewhere in the playoffs if this is the real Matt Stafford.  They simply never developed any semblance of a run game.  Stafford leads the league in attempts because all the Lions can do to move the football is throw it.  The Lions know their personnel as well as anyone, and Jim Schwartz readily admits: his team has no running game.  They’ll run it to run out the clock, but that’s it.  Their short yardage game is non-existent. Their offensive line can hold up in pass protection, but it is not a group that can move anyone off the ball.  When you add to that the fact that the Lions’ top two highly drafted picks at running back (Jahvid Best and Mikel LeShoure) are both on injured reserve, you could forgive the Lions for throwing more than 40 times a game.

It just means that the Lions are incredibly sensitive to a poor performance by Matthew Stafford in the playoffs.  So he needs to go into Green Bay, play like he has the last two weeks if for no other reason than to give the Lions coaching staff confidence to use the Lions’ best or riskiest passing plays in the playoffs.

It should be pointed out that a team like the Lions even winning a single playoff game would be a minor upset.  Teams built like the Lions are supposed to get exposed by playoff teams as the Lions did when they played the 49ers and Falcons at home in consecutive weeks, or when they played the Bears at the height of their health this year, or when they played the Packers on Thanksgiving, or when they tried to come off that Thanksgiving game and win at the Superdome against the Saints.  For the most part, playoff bound teams have exposed the Detroit Lions as something less than that.

Which is why what the Lions have done the last two weeks is so interesting.  They’ve faced two pretty good football teams in Oakland and San Diego, and erased a huge lead by the Raiders and blew out the Chargers.  Those games don’t fit with the narrative that the Lions are supposed to be exposed on the road and against good teams.  The Packers will be resting players, so the Lions have little to prove outside of keeping Matthew Stafford in rhythm and getting yards in chunks down the field.  Barring the outcome of that meaningless game, the Lions will enter the playoff field without a win over a team that is currently in the playoff field (though the Cowboys can win and get in in Week 17).

As I wrote about the Falcons last week, the Lions would be best served to get the five seed so that they can play a very beatable NFC East champ.  That will be a road game, but if the Lions can go get that win next week against Green Bay, then continue the streak in Dallas/New York, you will have a really interesting shot by the Lions to go a lot deeper.  They could draw San Francisco in the divisional round via this route, and avoid their banes in the first two rounds: New Orleans and Green Bay.

At that point, we’re talking about the Lions being in the NFC Championship game by circumstance of beating two teams who many question as legitimate playoff teams (for the record, I would pick San Francisco over Detroit in the divisional round, but we’re going to ignore that because…look at the title of this article).  Then we’re looking at Detroit needing to upset the Packers at Lambeau Field for the second time this month, which could easily happen.

The Lions will need Stafford to play like he has of late, and they will need Calvin Johnson to play like he did at the beginning of the season.  They will need their defense to show up, be able to harass the passer, and be able to protect it’s LBs against the run.  The Lions were paper thin in the secondary the last time they played Green Bay, and we’ll get to see how well built they are to take on the Packers in the playoffs.  We know from the Thanksgiving day game that the Lions defense can give the Packers offense fits in spurts, but what we didn’t see that day was an offense that could match the Packers.  We have seen that Lions offense in recent weeks.

In their best form, the Lions are a poor man’s Packers.  If the Lions can win the super bowl, it will take a super effort from a couple of players that the Lions spent the mega bucks on in the draft and free agency.  The Lions have proved in the last two weeks that they are built to be a threat in the playoffs now.  With that said, it would be an upset if they made any noise in the postseason.  This is still a very young team, a very immature team.  No one will be picking the Lions to do any damage in the playoffs to anyone but themselves.  However, the talent to win the super bowl is already in place.  For the Detroit Lions to pay off their first playoff season in 12 years with a super bowl appearance, a couple of very young Lions are going to have to lead the rest of the team past opponents who come into this playoff season far more tested, if not proven.

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