Sunday, October 27, 2013

What Is This Team?

The Lions won a desperate victory in desperate fashion today, beating the Dallas Cowboys 31-30 in the final twelve seconds of the game.  This victory was highly improbable due to the Cowboys having amassed a ten-point lead in the middle of the 4th quarter. 

Down 27-17 with less than seven minutes to go, QB Matt Stafford engineered a touchdown scoring drive that put the Lions within a field goal to tie the game.  They got the ball back but failed to convert on a 4th down pass with under two minutes left to go, giving Dallas the ball at midfield.  The Lions defense took the field and managed to hold Dallas to another field goal, making it 30-24 with a 1:02 left in the game. 

The final drive started at the Lions' 20 yard line and Stafford's first completion went to Calvin Johnson down the seam for 17 yards.  Next came a deep 40-yard bomb to wide receiver Kris Durham, and then another completion to Johnson which put the Lions at the Cowboys' 1-yard line.  With under 20 seconds to go, Stafford called the offense to the line and signaled he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock.

Instead, Stafford faked everyone out and pushed the ball across the plane, but pulled it back and ran it in for a game-tying touchdown.   After the review, the referees ruled Stafford had crossed the plane and awarded the Lions six points.  David Akers came and kicked the go-ahead PAT, and on the ensuing kickoff, punter Sam Martin squib kicked the ball, which Dallas recovered.  On the final play, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completes a pass up the middle and after a series of bobbles and laterals, Dallas fails to score and the game ends.

Public opinion of the Lions falls into two camps: those who've drank the Kool-Aid and those who expect a collapse at any given moment.  I'm definitely in the former, the Kool-Aid drinking camp.  I put Lions butter on my mashed potatoes. 

The latter camp expects a collapse because they have seen it happen so many times.  In 2004, they started 4-2 and finished 6-10.  In 2007, they started 6-2, and finished 7-9.  Last year, they were 4-4 at the midway point and lost every game the rest of the way, many in heartbreaking fashion.  So it's understandable.  They "know" it'll happen and want to believe it so they feel they have credibility.  But deep down inside, they want to be wrong.

It seems quite clear to me that the Lions, at 5-3, are progressing.  They should be 7-1, notwithstanding the losses to Arizona and Cincinnati.  5-3 is close to where I had them, but I worried that the second half would be the true test of this team's resolve.

The evidence now suggests that at 5-3, they are contenders, not pretenders.  Not "Super Bowl" contenders, just contending for (1) a playoff spot, (2) a division title, and (3) a playoff victory.  Why would I say this?

This is a team with a franchise quarterback.  Stafford is developing.  He's making some good throws, and he's cut down on the number of bad throws.  He's learning the lesson Brett Favre had to learn years ago, which is to not try to do everything yourself. 

He had turned late round picks, undrafted free agents, and other teams' refuse into tangible players, such as RB Joique Bell, TE Joseph Fauria, and WR Durham.  As I and many others have said, in order for Stafford to take it to the next level, he needs to develop his own weapons and not rely on the Lions' front office drafting skill players in the 1st and 2nd rounds.

This is a team with resolve.  Lions teams of years past would have folded if they were down by 10 with time left in the 4th quarter.  Lions teams of years past would have found a way to squander a 10-point lead with time left in the 4th quarter.  This team doesn't quit.  Credit to coaching, Jim Schwartz!

This is a team that has a more balanced offense.  It does not a dominant running game, and it is not a team that has players like Adrian Peterson to grind out yards needed to shave minutes off the clock.  But the running aspect is a threat.  Reggie Bush is a threat to take it all the way on almost any play either by pass or by rush.  They will always be pass first with Johnson, but with Bush, they can now keep opposing defenses honest.

This is a team that has a defense.  Again, not a dominant defense, but this team is less a liability than in years past.  The defensive line needs more depth.  The secondary needs maybe another corner and some more experience.  The linebackers are good enough, given they play a lot of nickel packages.  They will not stop you on every drive, but they can hold teams off more than years before.

Finally, this is a team that needs to score enough to maintain at least a two-possession lead throughout most the game.  The defense can be counted on to hold the opposing team off on a few drives, but not every drive, thus allowing them the needed insurance to secure a victory.

What are they?  They look more like a Mike Valenti-predicted 11-5 team than a metrichead-predicted 9-7 team.  I can't believe Valenti looks pollyannish compared to me, but 10-6 is more realistic, and I'd be happy with that.

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