Monday, January 02, 2012

Hello Playoffs

Yesterday the 2011 NFL season ended...


The last time anyone could say that was in 1999, and even then they only backed into the playoffs after losing their final four games.

The season was special from the get-go. After finishing 2010 with four straight wins to go 6-10, expectations were high in this city and across the country. Many commentators picked the Lions as their "it" team of 2011.

In April, the Lions drafted a defensive tackle, Nick Fairley, out of Auburn with their 1st Round pick. They then selected a running back Mikel LeShoure and a wide receiver, Titus Young. While Martin Mayhew did little to address a porous secondary, he did manage to sign two solid linebackers in Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, which settled the defense's front seven.

While many of us were fretting at the sight of a possible work stoppage, both the NFL and its union, the NFLPA reached a new collective bargaining agreement that made the whole regular season possible. The only casualty was the Hall of Fame Game, which is largely a waste anyway, since it's one more meaningless game that two teams have to play in a preseason that has too many games as it is.

When the preseason arrived, the Lions dominated, going 4-0. While they didn't have any meaningful victories, they did stoke fears among fans who remembered the dreadful 0-16 season where they had also gone 4-0 in the preseason. Yet the key difference between the 2008 team and the 2011 team, was that the 2011 team had some actual talent. The '08 team did have Calvin Johnson, but there was no franchise quarterback, no defense, and no coaching staff that could adequately prepare a team and implement a game plan.

The team started off hot. They went 5-0 for the first time since 1956 and were the talk of the league. Their start coincided with the Detroit Tigers' playoff run. Detroit was buzzing. Included in that start were two come from behind victories at Minnesota and at Dallas where the Lions were down 20-0 and 23-0 at halftime respectively. A billboard along I-94 in Detroit showed a lion and a tiger with the warning: "Beware of cats." The name "Stafford" became a buzz word as at various sporting events around the city; you could hear fans screaming "STAFFORD!!!" at random times in games that had nothing to do with football.

Then came an eight-week stretch (including a bye week) where the Lions lost five of their next seven, and suddenly Detroit was 7-5 and outside the playoff bubble. A little dust up and the end of the Lions' first loss to San Francisco where Coach Jim Schwartz got into it with 49ers' Coach Jim Harbaugh in the post-game handshake was embarrassing for the team. The loss coincided with the Tigers' elimination from the ALCS a few days before.

Along the way, the Lions earned a reputation as a "dirty" team, and the anchor of its defense, Ndamukong Suh, was voted as the dirtiest player in the league. I contest such claims because (1) I'm a homer, and (2) there are plenty of other examples of dirtier players in the league, like the Steelers' James Harrison and Hines Ward. Suh didn't help himself on Thanksgiving day by driving Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith's head into the turf three times and then stomping on him once.

The stomp, while not as damaging as Albert Haynesworth's stomp on Andre Gurode five years earlier, caused Suh to have a two-game suspension. On top of that, Suh's clumsy handling of the matter hurt his popularity around the league. His failure to apologize to Dietrich-Smith after the game, a half-hearted apology on facebook the next day, and then ending a weekly radio interview abruptly after he came back only reinforced the negative things that his detractors were saying about him.

Eventually, the Lions regrouped and won three in a row against the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers. I went to the Vikings game, and watched them almost give the game away after taking a 21-0 lead. The game ended with the referees missing an obvious facemask penalty on Lions' DeAndre Levy, which would've given the Vikings a fresh set of downs and the ball on the 1-yard line. Lucky for us, the refs blew a call that actually went in our favor, for once.

Raiders game was the most dramatic as Detroit was down 27-14 with under eight minutes to go before Stafford pulled the team together and scored with a TD pass to Calvin Johnson. The Raiders game guaranteed the Lions' first winning season since 2000, and it included the return of Suh after his suspension, and his game-winning field goal block against Sebastian Janikowski.

The Chargers' game wasn't even close. The Lions dominated on both sides of the ball and secured its first playoff berth in twelve years. For me, the icing on the cake was the night before, former Lions' GM Matt Millen predicted the Chargers would win. To his defense, the Chargers had gotten hot, despite a lackluster start to the season. But his failed prediction was gravy. He predicted the Lions would lose, and instead, not only did they win, but they made the playoffs, something he never could pull off in eight years.

The season ended in Green Bay with a loss. This game was expected to be a Lions' win. Green Bay already secured the No. 1 seed with the best record in the NFC (and the NFL, for that matter), so it was expected that Packers' coach Mike McCarthy would sit his best players. He did, at least most of them. QB Aaron Rodgers, LB Clay Matthews, and CB Charles Woodson all sat out. While the Lions got off to a 9-0 start, backup QB Matt Flynn threw for over 450 yards and five TDs. Stafford also threw for over 500 yards and five TDs, but threw an interception on the final play of the game, giving the Packers the win.

Yesterday's loss was embarrassing. Despite the fact that the Pack sat only three (as far as I know) starters, the Lions won't be able to live that one down for a while. If Matt Flynn (Rodgers' backup) is 75% as good as he was against the Lions (and the Packers have that good of depth on their team), then maybe it isn't so bad, but your average common man won't remember all those nuances. They'll just remember that the Lions couldn't beat Green Bay's second string.

So, we're 10-6. 10-6 is good. I actually predicted they'd go 10-6, generically. According to my schedule I had on my fridge, I had them going 11-5 game-by-game, and I went 12-4 predicting those outcomes. I missed on San Francisco, at Chicago, Green Bay (on Thanksgiving), and San Diego. Not bad for the past three years. I said in 2009 they'd be 3-13; they were 2-14. In 2010, I said 5-11; they were 6-10.

And now, we're in the playoffs. This Saturday, Detroit goes to New Orleans. The city is still revved up for the playoffs. The only negative is the bad taste left in our mouths after yesterday's loss. Detroit had a chance to get another monkey off our backs. By beating Green Bay at home, the Lions would've ended the 20-game winning streak they had over us.

Yet, because of this season, we got a lot of other monkeys off our backs. We had a winning season. We won ten games. We made the playoffs. We found a franchise QB (STAHHF-FAHD!!!!). Last year, Coach Schwartz ended the NFL-record longest road losing streak (a record that was previously held by guess who - Detroit). The year before, he ended the nightmarish 19-game losing streak and gave us our first win in almost two years.

You can say a lot of what Coach Schwartz is doing is about monkeys. Yesterday's game was a chance to rid us of one more. It didn't happen, but there's always next year. For now, let's focus on beating New Orleans. And then winning a Super Bowl. I'll take those monkeys off our backs over winning a game at Green Bay.

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