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Football Outsiders Q&A: Why the Detroit Lions are projected NFC North favorites

Lions? NFC North favorites? Believe it.

NFL: DEC 29 Packers at Lions Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, ESPN published a piece co-authored by football analytics site Football Outsider and its creator Aaron Schatz. The purpose of the piece was to rank 2019’s last place teams in their division by the likelihood they win the division this year.

The article spread like wildfire across Detroit Lions fans for two reasons. First, it had the Lions as the most likely team to accomplish that worst-to-first improvement. But Schatz took things one step further by noting that Football Outsiders’ prediction model actually has the Lions with the best chance to win the NFC North—above the Packers, Bears and Vikings.

It was at that point that I absolutely had to know some more. I checked out their awesome, annual Football Outsiders Almanac that provided some great detail as to why they like the Lions this year, and what went wrong last year.

But I wanted even more. So I swapped some questions for some answers with Bryan Knowles, a contributor over at Football Outsiders.

Today is Part 1 of our Q&A, which simply goes into more detail about their prediction model and why they like the Lions in 2020. Enjoy.

Question: Your projections have the Lions with the best odds to win the NFC North. Can you just repeat that a little slower, then explain why?

Knowles: “Yes, catch that Lions fever! There are two key things to keep in mind with that projection. First, the NFC North is by far the biggest toss-up division — all four teams win it somewhere between 23% and 27% of the time in our simulations. The Lions did come out with the highest odds, but it’s not like we’re projecting them as massive favorites; just in front of a very tight group. It’s also a group we’re expecting to be very average, with the Packers and Vikings notably coming back towards 8-8; Minnesota lost a bunch of personnel and Green Bay was nowhere near as good as their 13-3 record from 2019 implies. The Lions were 3-4-1 with Matthew Stafford under center last year; we expect the team to be closer to that than their eventual 3-12-1 finish. Just being average may be enough to win the division, and the Lions are good enough to clear that admittedly low bar.”

Part 2 of our interview continues on Monday, when we’ll talk about the year Matthew Stafford had last season and if it’s sustainable for an entire season in 2020.

If you want more detailed information on the Lions’ 2019 season and why they’re slated for significant improvement this year, check out the Football Outsiders 2020 Almanac.