Here are five questions on the 6-2 Detroit Lions:
1. The Lions have the No. 1 defense in the NFL? Am I reading this right? How did this happen?
Yes, you read that correctly. Based on yards per game, the Lions have the NFL's top defense. Nobody saw this coming given all of the concerns about the secondary in the preseason, and considering how many injuries the Lions have dealt with on defense, their turnaround is all the more surprising and impressive.
The simple answer to how the Lions improved so much from 2013 to 2014 is Teryl Austin. The overall talent isn't that much different from last year to now, but Austin has elevated that talent with his creative scheme. By using different looks and mixing things up, the Lions have been able to generate pressure on a much more consistent basis. This has led to more sacks, and it has made life a bit easier on the secondary. The defensive backs have really taken their game to another level, too, and everything just seems to be clicking for Austin and the defense right now.
2. Aside from the defense's emergence, what was the biggest surprise in the first half of the season?
The offensive line's inability to protect Matthew Stafford and open up holes in the running game has been pretty surprising, but we'll save disappointing things for the next question. The most surprising positive development for me is that the Lions are 3-0 this season without Calvin Johnson. Having the NFL's top defense has obviously helped make that possible, but past Lions teams could barely even move the ball without Megatron. Even with Megatron the offense has had its fair share of issues this year, but Golden Tate has really stepped it up as of late. Tate was brought in to be the Lions' No. 2 receiver, but he's really been their top guy so far this season.
3. What was the biggest disappointment?
The offense, as covered above, has been pretty disappointing, as has the ridiculous amount of injuries this team has dealt with. More than anything, though, the kicker situation was the most disappointing thing for me in the first half of the season. The Lions are already on their third kicker, and they missed at least one field goal in each of the first six weeks of the season. Not having a reliable kicker flat out cost them the Buffalo Bills game, and missed field goals hurt them in their other loss as well. Matt Prater did make a clutch kick last Sunday in London, so hopefully that's a sign of things to come for the rest of the year, but it was really inexcusable for the Lions to have such a mess on their hands at kicker in the first half of the season.
4. What one thing must happen for the Lions to have a successful second half of the season?
First of all, let's define what would be a successful second half of the season. Simply avoiding a collapse like last year would be a good start, but at this point I think anything short of a trip to the playoffs would qualify as a disappointment. This means that the Lions are going to have to either fend off the Green Bay Packers to win the NFC North or win enough games to take one of the wild-card spots.
With that in mind, I think the Lions' success or failure in the final eight games will ultimately come down to whether or not Stafford elevates his play. Even if the defense continues to play at a high level, this team is only going to go as far as Stafford. He was excellent during the Lions' comebacks the last two weeks, but his poor play earlier in those games helped put the team in a position where comebacks were necessary in the first place. Granted, the offense as a whole needs to play a lot better going forward, and Joe Lombardi has to improve as the offensive coordinator. But when 2014 comes to a close, chances are the overall success or failure of the Lions will come down to how Stafford performed in the second half of the season.
5. Based on the first eight weeks, what's your prediction for the final eight games?
Before the season, I had the Lions going 9-7 and missing the playoffs. Considering they're already at six wins, the Lions should outperform my prediction unless they experience another second-half collapse. It does need to be noted that the Lions' remaining schedule is quite difficult with road games against the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Packers, and going to Soldier Field in late December also won't be easy. The Lions' home games seemingly set up quite well, but as last year taught us, there are no sure victories.
I guess at this point I'd go with a 4-4 record in the final eight games and a 10-6 record overall. I expect the Lions to win three of their home games and drop one they shouldn't, and I expect them to win only one of their remaining road games. There's a very good chance in this scenario that the Lions could meet the Packers in Week 17 with the NFC North on the line, but I don't like the odds of Detroit winning at Lambeau Field. As a result, I suppose I'd slot them into one of the wild-card spots, which would still exceed my expectations from before the season.
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