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Football Outsiders Q&A: Why you should believe in the 2020 Detroit Lions

Their projection model got it wrong last year, but this year, you should have some confidence.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Football Outsiders got Detroit Lions fans’ hopes up with one of the more optimistic projections than any major national publication. They weren’t expecting an 11 or 12-win team or anything, but they were one of the few whose projection models had them as slight favorites to win the NFC North.

This year, their projection models are spitting out almost identical numbers. Here’s a comparison of the NFC North breakdown from 2019 and 2020:


All four NFC North teams have projected DVOA between 1.0% and 2.8%, and all four teams have mean projected wins between 8.0 and 8.3. Detroit is not as good as Chicago or Green Bay, but it’s close, and they have the easiest schedule in the division. The Lions aren’t prohibitive favorites, but nuance doesn’t exactly work well on the Internet.


We’re high on the Lions because our mean projections have every team in the NFC North as a very average team. All four teams win the division somewhere between 23% and 27% of our simulations.

In both instances, it wasn’t so much about the Detroit Lions as it was their incredibly tight division.

But is there anything different about this year? Is there any more confidence coming from the Football Outsiders squad? Is there any reason to trust their projection model after the team let us down in 2019?

To conclude our Q&A series with Football Outsiders, I asked Bryan Knowles exactly that. Why should we trust you now?


Last year you had almost identical projections for the Lions. Any reason for Lions fans to have more confidence that this year things will come together?

Knowles: “I’ll level with you—the first time I saw our preliminary projections, I groaned when I saw the Lions’ number—here we go again. So I understand if there’s a lack of confidence here—we feel it, too. But the Lions were in the wild-card race before Stafford’s injury and the Quandre Diggs trade tanked both sides of the ball. They added a ton of talent on defense; they’ve been gaining players while the rest of the division has been stuck in neutral, or worse. Jeff Okudah is going to be a stud, though that might be in 2021 rather than 2020. The Lions’ low turnover rate should regress back towards the mean. It’s unlikely that your starting quarterback will miss half the season. The fundamentals suggest that the Lions were closer to a six-win team last year than a three-win team; they finished 3-8-1 in one-score games which tends to revert over time. Someone has to win this muddle of a division, and the Lions stand as good a chance as anyone.

“And hey, if not, then at least you’ll likely get a fresh start with a new coach and general manager for 2021.”

Thanks to Knowles and the rest of the Football Outsiders staff for their insight into the Detroit Lions and the rest of the NFC North. If you want more insight like this, I highly recommend their 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac, which has all kinds of advanced stats and interesting perspectives.