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The Detroit Lions and takeaways: Part one of a playoff love story

The Lions turnover differential is how they’ve found themselves not only in the thick of the NFC playoff picture, but in the hunt for their first divisional title in 23 years.

Washington Redskins v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

This is an unfamiliar view for the Detroit Lions. A view from atop not only the NFC North, but situated near the summit of the entire conference. Not even the most optimistic of devotees clad in Honolulu Blue could have pictured this. But how did the Lions get there, and more importantly, what is it going to take for Detroit to not relinquish their spot among the elites of the NFC?

Turnovers. And, more specifically, limiting the amount of giveaways and generating more takeaways from their opposition.

Cliché, right? It’s a simple concept and one of those “keys to the game” that nearly every announcer will highlight before kickoff. The truth is that the Lions have done a pretty good job of maintaining a positive turnover differential thus far, and it’s been a key component in their ability to come away with victories by a razor’s edge. Detroit’s turnover margin this season currently sits at +4 heading into Week 15, which puts them ninth overall in the league, and fourth in the NFC. The teams in the NFC ahead of them in turnover differential are all right there in the thick of the playoff race: Minnesota (+12), Atlanta (+8) and Tampa Bay (+6). A glance at the teams near the bottom of this list will show you teams already eliminated from playoff contention: Los Angeles (-10) and Chicago (-7).

A Deeper Look at the Numbers

Detroit is 6-1 in games where they win the turnover differential. The Lions largest margin of victory was their game against New Orleans, and it’s no coincidence that this was the game where Detroit also had their best turnover differential of the season (+3). And while they have only beaten one team by more than one score—the aforementioned Saints game—it’s the defense, the secondary especially, coming up huge at the end of games. The secondary has had game-clinching interceptions on four occasions: Week 5 against Philadelphia, Week 6 against the Rams, Week 11 against the Jaguars and Week 12 against the Vikings. While it’s true that the Lions offense has done a great job in limiting their own turnovers—they’re tied for second in the league with only 10 giveaways—these interceptions late in the game are a reminder of how the Lions offense isn’t the sole reason they’ve been able to win games late and by the slimmest of margins.

By the same accord, giveaways have been the reason the Lions have put themselves out of games as well: In three of the team’s four losses—Tennessee, Green Bay and Chicago in Week 4—Detroit either lost or were a net zero in turnover differential. In games where Matthew Stafford throws an interception, the Lions are just 2-3.

But as far as how costly turnovers have been, the Lions’ defense has helped limit the damage: Detroit actually leads the league in the fewest amount of points from giveaways, surrendering just 16 points total after turning it over to the opposition. Considering seven of those points were the pick-six last week against Chicago, that’s a feather in the cap of this defense. However, the offense isn’t scoring a ton of points off of turnovers, amassing the fifth fewest points from takeaways (28). This +12 net turnover points figure is further illustration of how the Lions have come up big in late-game situations, getting interceptions that send the offense into victory formation, but it’s also an indicator of how beyond those situations, they’re not doing much to capitalize on turnovers.

The Denver Broncos lead the league in net turnover points with a +51 differential. The Broncos have forced 23 turnovers and turned that into 103 points, or 4.5 points per turnover. The Lions, on the other hand, are only getting 2 points per turnover. This figure, however, doesn’t speak to the situations the Lions were in when they created these turnovers. The scenario that best shows how important context of turnovers is late in Week 5’s matchup with the Eagles. In that game, Darius Slay’s hit that forced Ryan Mathews to fumble came with a little less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. Trailing by two, all Detroit needed was a field goal to take the lead. Caldwell decided to burn clock and the Eagles’ timeouts and kick the field goal. It was then Slay’s interception that iced the game, but that takeaway didn’t result in points for, just the end of the game.

The Road Ahead

With just three weeks left in the 2016 season, the Lions have a difficult road ahead of them. First they travel to New York to play the Giants, who is the NFC team most likely to make the playoffs with a negative turnover differential (-5). Then they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys on Monday night, a team that, until recently, had been taking care of the football. Through their first 11 games, Dallas had only seven turnovers and a +3 turnover margin. In their last two games, Dallas has coughed up the ball five times and a -1 turnover differential.

And then they play the Packers, on short rest, at Ford Field on New Year’s Day. Green Bay’s offense was a mess to begin the season, and their record reflected that: The Packers’ -6 turnover differential may have been indicative of their 4-6 start. Aaron Rodgers threw 7 interceptions over that span, but since then, Rodgers has been next to perfect and the offense has cleaned things up. In addition, the defense has turned it up, combining with the offense to post a +7 turnover differential in their last three games, including a performance where they forced the NFC West Champion Seattle Seahawks into six turnovers. It should come as no surprise the Packers went 3-0 down that stretch.

In all of these games, it will be crucial for the Lions to not only protect the ball on offense, but their defense forcing the issue and generating turnovers could drastically improve their chances of snatching a victory. Coming out on the right side of the turnover margin, regardless of how many points they turn into, will only mean good things for Detroit.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.