Every year, there seems to be one NFL team that comes out of nowhere to win their division and make a deep playoff run. Every year, Detroit Lions fans hope and pray it will finally be their turn. Every year since 2002, at least one team has gone worst-to-first in the division, with the lone exception being in 2014.
Needless to say, those prayers for the Lions haven’t been answered in *checks watch* 60+ years.
But according to Football Outsiders, there’s legitimate reason for hope in 2019. Via ESPN+, Football Outsiders ranked the eight teams that finished last in the division in 2018 by their likelihood of winning the division this year. The Lions came in atop the list. Football Outsiders is giving the Lions a 25.5 percent chance to win the NFC North (second-best in the division) and a 39.8 percent chance to make the playoffs (14th).
Their reasons for picking the Lions? There are plenty. Let’s run through a few of them.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders is a big fan of some of the additions the Lions made this year. He notes the additions of T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James will be a huge improvement to their tight end room. Hockenson may be a unknown commodity, but Schatz is high on James.
“James was seventh among tight ends in receiving value last season by our metrics,” he wrote.
He also notes the two big signings along the defensive line with Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels.
Schatz notes that there is a certain amount of expected regression in the first year of a new defensive scheme. Conversely, there’s a noticeable bounce-back effect in Year 2.
“The Lions are in the second year of a new scheme, and all else being equal, teams take a little step back in the first year of a new scheme and a step forward once they have more experience in it,” Schatz writes.
But there are more reasons to believe the defense will improve, even putting the perceived improvement in talent aside. According to Schatz, the fact that the Lions were better against the run last year than the pass suggests the defense will improve the following year. Additionally, turnovers—which are statistically random by many measures—should regress to the mean after the Lions defense failed to force many in 2018.
“Detroit got a takeaway on only 7.3% of drives last year, 31st in the NFL,” Schatz wrote. “That’s an important metric that tends to regress toward the mean heavily from year to year.”
We’ve talked about it a few times already, but some advanced statistics suggest the Chicago Bears could be in for a big regression in 2019 after their 12-4 season. Schatz explains:
Over the past dozen years, the top defense in our rankings has fallen to ninth place, on average, the following year. In a situation opposite to Detroit’s, Chicago lapped the league last year with takeaways on 19.1% of drives. That number is likely to be significantly lower this season.
Of course, the Lions still have to deal with two other competitive teams in the division, but taking down the 2018 division champions would be a good start for Detroit.
Overall, it’s admittedly a little hard to get too excited about the Lions potentially winning the division, considering they haven’t done so in 28 years, but you don’t often see them getting this kind of support from an advanced statistics site, either. So maybe a little hope is warranted.