The Lions have fallen to 6-5 after last week’s Thanksgiving day loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Their chances of winning the NFC North took a big hit but they still aren’t quite dead in a messy NFC playoff picture.
The only real shot they have at making the playoffs is to run the table and win their five remaining games. That seems like a lot to ask of a team that is just a game over .500 on the year, however, it’s not impossible if the Lions can do these five things.
1. Get Off To Faster Starts
The common theme of the Lions’ past few games has been to get down early and claw back at the end. The Browns, Vikings and Bears all had Detroit down double-digits in the first quarter. While the Lions have gotten by with some late-game heroics from Matthew Stafford, it’s not a consistent model for winning in this league.
The team needs to get off to faster starts and that could mean more passing in predictable running situations early in the game. Jim Bob Cooter made a similar adjustment when taking over for Joe Lombardi midway through the 2015 season and the Lions took off.
2. Stop. The. Run.
The Lions were pretty good against the run to open the season. In recent weeks, they’ve been exposed by more physical, run-heavy offenses. Detroit has been pretty good against the run under Teryl Austin, and while has made adjustments in the second half, early lapses are part of the reason Detroit has given up so many first-quarter leads.
The Lions gave up 90 yards and a touchdown to Isaiah Crowell, 125 yards plus a score to Jordan Howard, and 84 yards and a touchdown to Latavius Murray over the last three weeks. Something needs to change or the Lions will continue to let teams hang around and require late magic from Stafford.
3. Beat Bad Teams
The Lions’ next five games are against the Ravens, Buccaneers, Bears, Bengals and Packers. The Ravens are the only one of those teams with a winning record, at 6-5. Detroit has struggled against good teams this season, losing to the Vikings, Panthers, Saints and Falcons.
They have also been able to beat the bad teams thus far, taking down the Browns, Packers, Bears and Giants. If Jim Caldwell can keep his team focused down the stretch, the Lions have a real shot at running the table against an underwhelming level of competition. Regardless of opponent record, Detroit still needs to go out there and take care of business.
4. Stafford Outplays Opposing QBs
Matthew Stafford, after becoming the highest-paid player in the league this offseason, has been pretty good in 2017. His 21 touchdowns with only 6 interceptions and 97.3 QB rating would be more impressive if the team had a better record. He’s led a few game-winning drives but hasn’t come through on those same chances against the better teams he’s faced this season.
Still, as mentioned earlier, the Lions aren’t playing any elite teams in the coming weeks. The toughest quarterback they face is probably Andy Dalton. He’s going to be the best quarterback on the field against some bad teams and Stafford must be the advantage that his salary indicates he should be in these games.
5. Fix Red Zone Woes
The Lions had an all-time frustrating case of Honolulu blue balls against the Steelers and haven’t scored nearly as many touchdowns as they probably feel they should have. Red zone playcalling has been a struggle this season with a 48.3% touchdown rate (24th in the league). Detroit has relied too much on kicker Matt Prater’s leg to bail them out.
Kenny Golladay’s return has helped and against some average defenses over the next five games, Detroit has to come away with seven points instead of three when they have the chance. Prater is great for late-game scenarios, but the team needs to give him a rest in between 50-yard field goal attempts.