Column: Don't count out the Detroit Lions from playoffs just yet
Even though hopes are slim after their Thanksgiving loss to Minnesota, the Lions (6-5) have five games to prove themselves
If any Detroit Lions fan looked on Twitter in the middle of Thanksgiving, chances are they would have seen an endless amount of criticism surrounding how terrible this year's Lions team is.
While waiting for the glorious Thanksgiving meal to finish cooking, Lions fans watched a team with so much potential fall to the Minnesota Vikings 30-23 Thursday, Nov. 23, at Ford Field.
Quarterback Case Keenum led a Vikings offense that wasn’t stopped all day long, throwing for 272 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings also dominated the ground game, rushing for 136 yards in the game and two more touchdowns on the ground. This rushing attack included a 46-yard run by Latavius Murray to start the second half, which really took the wind out of the Detroit defense’s sails.
Detroit’s struggles on defense, along with their inability to convert in the red zone, is what ultimately led to a loss for the Lions.
The fans on Twitter aren’t the only ones who appeared to have given up on this Lions season either. Both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News put out pieces after the game, saying how they believed the “Lions’ playoff ambitions look like an illusion.”
These writers do have some reason for concern; despite the Lions winning three of their last four games, they haven’t played to their full potential for a while.
They were down 10-0 to start the game against the winless Cleveland Browns, didn’t blow out a Green Bay Packers that looks below mediocre without Aaron Rodgers, and had to use a game-winning field goal from Matt Prater to beat a pathetic Chicago Bears team.
Good football teams need to blow out bad football teams like that, and the Lions never looked dominant in any of those wins.
However, despite their less-than-stellar play, glaring flaws and head scratching play calling, this year's team currently sits at 6-5, still leaving open opportunities to squeeze into the NFC playoff contention.
The Lions do have a few things they need to improve upon if they want to keep their playoff chances afloat. The running game that has eluded this team for years continues to be nonexistent, as the Lions have only attained 861 yards on the ground this year, ranking 28th in the NFL in total rushing yards.
This running game also has only averaged 3.4 yards per carry (30th in the NFL) and four touchdowns (26th) 11 games into the season, which both--bluntly put--are pathetic stats. These struggles have been mostly due to the offensive line, which is a unit that hasn’t been healthy most of the year. But that still isn't a true excuse, as the O-line has been mediocre at best when they actually are healthy.
Not only does this Lions team struggle to run the football, they also can’t figure out how to stop their opponents from running the football on them. The injury to All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata earlier in the season has proven to be deadly, as the run defense went from above average to poor without him.
Detroit has allowed 1,278 yards to its opponents this season, which is the fifth most in the NFL. Its gotten even worse recently, as they have allowed 559 rushing yards in their past three games. They allowed more than 200 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns, which is a sentence that no football team, or fan, wants to hear.
Despite all of this, the Detroit Lions have shown flashes of being a very good team this season, and while the Vikings pretty much have the NFC North title locked up, the Lions can still sneak into a wild-card spot.
And the one person to thank for keeping them in this position, and for all of Detroit’s success this season, can be attributed to quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has proven he’s worth every penny of the new $135 million deal he signed this past offseason.
The gunslinger out of Georgia has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season, tacking on 21 touchdowns and only throwing six interceptions. Stafford is on pace for his second 5,000 yard season, which would put him in some elite company.
In a season full of terrible quarterback play league-wide, Stafford has been one of the few consistent quarterbacks this season, and his leadership and clutch play has given the Lions a chance in every game they’ve played.
Still, Stafford isn’t the only player that’s been showing out for the Lions, as there are a few other Pro-Bowl caliber players whose elite play can lead the Lions back to the playoffs.
Wide Receiver Marvin Jones Jr. is having a career year, as he’s already had 44 catches for 731 yards and eight touchdowns. Jones Jr. has proven to be a reliable target for Stafford all season long.
Cornerback Darius Slay has improved drastically from last season, showing to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He’s had four interceptions, which is good enough for third in the league. He’s already defended 15 passes this season, showcasing his signature Mutombo-esque finger wag after every great play.
This Lions team has gotten relatively healthy as of late, too, as key players like defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and wide receiver Kenny Golladay have returned from injury.
The entire starting offensive line is finally healthy as well, and they now get more time to gel as a unit and improve upon the terrible running team. Stafford did suffer an apparent ankle injury on Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t appear to be serious, so he should be 100 percent after the extended break before week 12’s game against Baltimore.
If there was anytime for the Lions to make a run and rattle off four or five victories down the stretch, it's now. They have a favorable schedule to help, as they don’t play a single team for the rest of the season that is currently above .500.
Not only that, but a case could be made that the Lions don’t play another good quarterback the rest of the year. They’ll face the not-so-elite Joe Flacco, backups Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brett Hundley, unproven rookie Mitchell Trubisky and the red-rocket Andy Dalton, who has failed to launch all season long. None of these quarterbacks are players that this young defense needs to be afraid of.
If the Lions can win the games they’re supposed to and get to 10 or 11 wins, they can lock up a wild card spot in the NFC. With all that momentum and one of the best quarterbacks in the league at the helm, there’s no telling how far this team can go if they reach the playoffs.
As long as this football team can improve in the running game and play at a consistent level on defense, the Lions have a chance to do some damage in the NFC. Don’t count the Cardiac Cats out just yet.