9 Thoughts On The Detroit Lions Playoff Chances

The Detroit Lions play in the opener of the NFL’s now-traditional Week 1 Monday Night doubleheader when they host the New York Giants (7:10 PM ET, ESPN). You can make a good case that of the various question marks floating around the NFL, none are more consequential than those involving the Detroit Lions playoff chances.

If they play well, there’s a general belief that their talent level is high enough to dethrone the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North—and maybe do a whole lot more. If they don’t solve their problems with self-destructing they can again miss the playoffs.

Which way will this season go? Here’s nine thoughts on the Detroit Lions in 2014…

*It has to start with Jim Caldwell, the new head coach. If Caldwell can infuse discipline into this team, then they’re going to be good. His predecessor, Jim Schwartz failed, mainly because Schwartz couldn’t even discipline himself, much less anyone else. Caldwell has coached a team to a Super Bowl, with the 2009 Indianapolis Colts. But there’s a belief held by many—including me—that he just took a team from Tony Dungy and let it run on auto-pilot with Peyton Manning.

*All optimism flows from the explosive talent at the skill positions, starting with the NFL’s best receiver in Calvin Johnson. Detroit went out and got Golden Tate from the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, and Tate should blend in well as a complementary #2. How much Reggie Bush gives on the ground is debatable, but when you look at him as an all-purpose threat, it’s another big-play option.

*Detroit’s offensive line isn’t bad, but it is a question mark. They’ll be solid on the interior, with veteran center Dominic Raiola, and guard Larry Warford, who had an excellent rookie year. The perimeter at the tackles is a little more mediocre. If the pocket collapses from the outside, it negates Johnson’s extraordinary downfield skills and opens up the possibility of more interceptions.

*Which brings us to Matthew Stafford behind center. Stafford is the focal point of this team’s boom-or-bust tendencies. It’s tough to really say much more than “he has to avoid throwing interceptions”, because it really is that simple. His own ability to create big plays is there, but that has to stop including so many for the defense.

*The play of the tight ends could be a big hidden factor in the Lions’ offensive success. Johnson, Bush and Stafford will be the ones on the highlights each Sunday night on NBC, but whether Detroit can have steady success moving the ball will depend on whether rookie Eric Ebron or Joseph Fauria can become the consistent threat underneath that Brandon Pettigrew never really became.

*The interior of the defensive line is the best in football, with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Both are in contract years, playing for a lot of money. I wouldn’t want to be an opposing center or guard, or to be a quarterback whose team was weak at those positions when Suh and Fairley start bearing down on them. The issue? Can Ezekiel Ansah be consistent enough on the edge to prevent opposing protection schemes from bunching up the interior?

*The back seven is mostly a problem, but if nothing else, they’re good down the middle. Stephen Tulloch at middle linebacker and Glover Quin at free safety are solid. If they can at least make the plays that should be made and mitigate damage, it will allow the Lion offense and pass-rushing threats to win games.

*If the back seven costs the team games, the culprit is likely to be the cornerback spot, where there is just nothing. This is in a division where Detroit has to face the Chicago Bears (Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffrey) and Packers (Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb) in four games.

*We’re going to close with where we began and it’s with the new coach. His own career has been boom-or-bust, starting with Indianapolis (an AFC title in 2009, a complete implosion without Peyton in 2011). Caldwell was inserted as offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in December of 2012 and the team immediately turned around a late slump and won the Super Bowl, with Joe Flacco playing the best of his career. Then Caldwell oversaw Flacco’s worst season last year. If it’s going to work here in Detroit, the best argument is that Caldwell’s ultra-low-key demeanor is what the Lions need after the hyper Schwartz.

Will the Caldwell hire pay off? Las Vegas isn’t incredibly optimistic. Detroit’s number on the NFL win futures is 8.5. When it comes to odds to win the NFC North, they’re at 4-1. It’s behind Chicago, and low enough that you can bet the entire field against the favored Packers and come out ahead, regardless of which of the three challengers does it. That doesn’t speak to incredible confidence from the market about Detroit playing to their talent.

I tend to share the pessimism. I see the possibilities, but in the end, I end up falling back on “They’re still the Lions.” I know it’s the strongest argument, but when a franchise has never even made the Super Bowl, much less won it, they haven’t earned any benefit of the doubt. And there’s still room for