Aaron Rodgers’ injury has thrown the NFC North wide open. For the first five weeks of the year the Green Bay Packers were the run-away best team in the division, leaving the Vikings and Lions scraping it out for a wild card spot. Now, all three have a shot at the divisional title, a home playoff game, and perhaps enough confidence to launch a deep playoff run. So the question is can the Lions really compete for the division?
Let’s start by looking at what the 3-3 Lions still have on their slate.
|8||Vs Pittsburgh Steelers|
|9||@ Green Bay Packers|
|10||Vs Cleveland Browns|
|11||@ Chicago Bears|
|12||Vs Minnesota Vikings|
|13||@ Baltimore Ravens|
|14||@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|15||Vs Chicago Bears|
|16||@ Cincinnati Bengals|
|17||Vs Green Bay Packers|
The first thing that jumps out is that every single game on the remaining schedule is winnable. They don’t face a tough trip like going to Seattle, or an elite team like Kansas City. Pittsburgh are yet to put in a brilliant performance this season and they get a bye week to prepare for that. They have a win over Minnesota already so at worst they will split that, and they have every chance of going 4-0 against a shaky Bears side and a Rodgers-less Packers team. Baltimore’s defense can be tough but their offense implodes, and Tampa aren’t nearly the side their preseason hype suggested.
I’m not saying they will be going 10-0 after their bye, but a 7-3 finish isn’t unreasonable, and 10-6 could certainly win this division now.
The passing game is easily what Detroit do best. Ever since Jim Bob Cooter arrived and put in a scheme that got the ball out of Matthew Stafford’s hands quicker and the improvements have been marked.
Stafford’s massive $135 million contract extension was well deserved, and through six weeks he is sporting a 60.4% pass completion rate, with 1,428 yards, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 89.3 QB rating. Those numbers took a hit in a rough outing against New Orleans on Sunday, before that game his completion percentage was 64.2 and he had thrown just one interception.
His production is helped by a good mix of weapons to throw to. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Theo Riddick all do different things for the Lions, with Jones able to stretch the field, Riddick able to roast linebackers out of the backfield and Golden Tate being one of the best underneath receivers in the NFL and providing plenty of yards after the catch.
Of course, that trio took a blow on Sunday with Golden Tate suffering a shoulder injury that could cost him a couple of weeks.
Defensively, the Lions are usually very stingy. While the Saints got after them in the Superdome, they have been able to keep several good offenses out of the endzone regularly. Darius Slay is one of the best corners in the NFL right now, and Ziggy Ansah attracts a lot of attention up front. Jarrad Davis has looked very good as a rookie linebacker too.
Injuries are starting to take their toll on the Lions. Taylor Decker’s absence at left tackle has been a big one for Detroit so far, with Greg Robinson filling in poorly. Haloti Ngata is out for the year, and fellow defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson missed time on Sunday as well. When he was out of the game the Lions simply could not stop the run, which is a worrying sign should he suffer a serious injury.
The offensive line has been poor beyond just Robinson this season though. the new right side of the line of TJ Lang and Rick Wagner have been inconsistent, in particular in pass protection, adding to Matthew Stafford’s woes under center in recent weeks.
While the defense’s starting XI is good, we are starting to see cracks appear as depth players have to take on more snaps. When Davis was out with a concussion the middle of the defense suffered, and should Darius Slay go down the pass defense will really feel it.
It’s that depth that will keep them from winning out the rest of the way. If everything falls right they can, but an injury here, a quarter missed there, a key player out, and suddenly the Lions have gaps that they just can’t account for.
At 3-3, Detroit are just a win behind the Vikings and Packers. Minnesota haven’t proven themselves consistent, especially since Dalvin Cook went down, and have their own quarterback quandary on the horizon. 98% of the Packers success is on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers, which is now in a sling for probably the whole season. Their status is so up in the air that it is almost impossible to say that they will win one more game, nevermind six.
Minnesota will be the biggest road block to Detroit’s triumph, and having already secured a win against them they are in the driver’s seat there. Right now, despite being a game back, I would make them favorites for the NFC North.
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