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NFL Playoff Preview: Detroit Lions

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the season. What are their chances in the 2016 playoffs, and who are their key players?

Backing into the playoffs is an issue for teams across all sports. It’s a cheap feeling when you head into the playoffs on a losing streak, especially when the losing streak costs you a division title. Such is life for the Detroit Lions, who were 9-4 through Week 14 and were in full control of the NFC North. Then Matthew Stafford dislocated his middle finger and tore ligaments in his throwing hand, and the Lions only made it to the playoffs when the Washington Redskins lost to the New York Giants in Week 17. This will be the second trip to the playoffs in three seasons for the Lions; can they make it farther into the playoffs than they did in 2014?

Key Players

Offense: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback; Golden Tate, Wide Receiver

The success of the Lions’ offense is centered around the success of Stafford. When he was playing fully healthy, Stafford was highly effective and one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the history in the NFL.

YardsTDsIntsQBRYards per AttemptAdjusted Yards per AttemptComebacks
Games 1-13312/468 (66.7%)3447 (265.2 yards per game)22797.87.377.638
Games 14-1676/126 (60.3%)880 (293.3 yards per game)2376.86.986.230

Stafford’s season included breaking several more passing records.

Stafford led the Lions to eight fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season, breaking Peyton Manning’s record of seven with the Lions’ 20-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 14. Even counting the three-game losing streak in Weeks 15-17, Stafford still finished the year with a career low in interceptions and a career high in QBR.

For the Lions to succeed against the Hawks, they will need their skill position players to play up to their full potential against one of the best defensive teams in the NFL. Golden Tate, despite a truly horrific start to his season where he totaled just 17 receptions for 134 yards in five games, led the Lions in receiving yards with 1,077.

Tate has faced his former team just once since leaving the Seahawks in free agency after the 2013 season, and it wasn’t a particularly good game for him. The Lions lost to the Seahawks 10-13 in Week 4 of 2015, and Tate had just three receptions for 29 yards and one carry for six yards. Now, it should be said that that game came before the installation of Jim Bob Cooter as the Lions’ offensive coordinator, but no matter who is in charge of the Lions’ offense, Tate will need to be a major factor in Detroit’s gameplan if they have a prayer of beating the Seahawks.

Defense: Darius Slay, Cornerback; Tahir Whitehead, Linebacker

Detroit is far from the defensive powerhouse it was in 2014, and teams have managed to find success against the Lions this year despite an influx of youth. While surrendering the 19th-most passing yards, the Lions allowed the second-most passing touchdowns (33), the sixth-highest net yards per attempt (6.9), and were just 23rd in interceptions (10). They were slightly better against the run; they saw the ninth-fewest rushing attempts (389) and allowed the 18th-most rushing yards (1701). They also allowed the second-fewest rushing touchdowns (8) and saw opposing running backs average 4.4 yards per attempt (20th). Their defense isn’t anything special, and to sneak out of Seattle with a win, they are going to need top-notch performances from their two best players.

Darius Slay is one of the best cover corners in the league, and he will have a tough task as he will be asked to reign in Doug Baldwin, who has totaled 2,179 yards over the last two seasons as Seattle’s top wideout. Slay will have to be especially good this week because the other corners in Detroit’s secondary have been below average to poor against wide receivers worse than Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Kearse and Baldin are Seattle’s best wide receivers with second year stud Tyler Lockett on IR, and Seattle, despite their horrific offensive line, has still managed to put together a passing offense rated just below average to slightly above average, depending on which statistic one would use.

Meanwhile, Tahir Whitehead and the Lions’ linebacking and safety corps will have the unenviable job of attempting to shut down All-World tight end Jimmy Graham. Surprisingly, the Lions have actually been very good at shutting down Graham in the past; in three previous meetings with the Lions, Graham has averaged just 39.3 yards a game and has not scored a touchdown against the Lions. That kind of success against Graham again would go a long way towards giving the Lions a shot to win against the Seahawks.

Best Win/Worst Loss

The Lions had a number of dramatic wins in the 2016 regular season, but possibly the best came in Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles. After blowing a 14-point lead and seeing the Eagles slip in front on the strength of a 49-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal, the Lions were saved from a devastating defeat when Darius Slay forced a Ryan Matthews fumble which led to the game-winning 29-yard field goal from Matt Prater.

Just as they had a lot of great wins, the Lions also suffered some really horrible losses throughout their season. They took a tough-luck 16-15 loss to the Tennessee Titans, were one of the three teams the Chicago Bears beat when they lost 17-14 in Week 4, and only managed six points against the Giants in their 17-6 Week 15 defeat. But the worst loss of the year was their 20-13 defeat at the hands of the Houston Texans in Week 8. This was one of the best performances of the year by Detroit’s defense, holding the Texans to just 269 total yards on offense, but it simply wasn’t enough to get the job done.

Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams

Week 3: 34-27 Loss vs (4) Green Bay Packers

Week 8: 20-13 Loss vs (4) Houston Texans

Week 15: 17-6 Loss vs (5) New York Giants

Week 16: 42-21 Loss vs (1) Dallas Cowboys

Week 17: 31-24 Loss vs (4) Green Bay Packers

Positive: They have a lot of experience playing against playoff teams this season, and swept the three games on their schedule against the 2015 playoff teams that missed the 2016 playoffs (Redskins, Vikings twice).

Negative: They didn’t beat a team that made the playoffs this year. And even if they do manage to beat the Seahawks, they go up against a far superior offensive team in the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round, and with their Week 16 loss to the powerful Cowboys, the Lions’ chances don’t look too good.

Performance Leading Up to the Postseason

A three-game losing streak doesn’t necessarily bode well for a team’s chances in the playoffs, but it’s not the death knell it used to be. Teams have been known to make miraculous recoveries in the playoffs and make magic happen; last season saw the Broncos struggling down the stretch in the regular season because their offense was horrific, but they just absolutely dominated defensively in the playoffs when they sent Peyton Manning off into the sunset a champion.

The Lions are dealing with a number of injuries to some of their best defensive and offensive players, and despite the recent struggles of the Seahawks on defense without Earl Thomas, there’s not a whole lot of positives going into this matchup for the Lions.

Level of Contender: Pretenders

The Lions snuck into the playoffs as a six seed because the Redskins couldn’t manage one more win in their season and the Buccaneers lost basically every important tiebreaker game on their schedule. The Lions have been extremely lucky all season, with just their win against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13 coming by more than one score. That was the kind of luck that propelled the Lions into the playoffs in 2014, and they didn’t manage to beat the Cowboys that year with a far better team than they have this season.

The Lions do very few things well and do a number of things poorly. Their rushing offense is terrible, they give up passing touchdowns in spades, they have rookies running around on defense trying to cover the holes left by injured veterans, and despite the magic of Matthew Stafford, this is a team that was very, very lucky to make the playoffs at all.

They had no luck against playoff teams in the regular season, and with the exception of the Packers, who have possibly the most injury-depleted defense in the league, Matthew Stafford struggled against every last playoff team. It’s very hard to see the Lions making it past the Seahawks in the playoffs. Even if they are lucky enough to do that, they will be killed against the Falcons. This is as guaranteed a one-and-done team as you can get in the modern-day NFL.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Who caught Matthew Stafford's first postseason touchdown pass?
Created 1/5/17
  1. Calvin Johnson
  2. Golden Tate
  3. Brandon Pettigrew
  4. Will Heller

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