Dave Birkett Detroit Free Press
Published 2:07 PM EDT Sep 30, 2019
A quarter of the way through the NFL season, it seems as if we have a pretty good football team on our hands.
Not a great one. Maybe not even a playoff one. But one that, Sunday’s 34-30 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs proved, can hang with anyone.
The Detroit Lions nearly slayed one of the two biggest dragons in football, and if not for a couple of weird plays – and, more crushingly, a huge fourth-quarter defensive breakdown – they would have.
At 2-1-1, they’re in an interesting spot heading into the bye week. They’re in third place in the tightly-wound NFC North, behind the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, and still in need of probably eight more wins to reach the postseason.
That’s doable. With 12 games to play, there’s not a team left on the schedule that’s clearly superior to the Lions, save for maybe the Dallas Cowboys, and that game is at Ford Field.
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But it’s just as possible that the Lions look back three months from now and kick themselves at the missed opportunities they had in the first quarter of the season.
Against the Chiefs, the Lions fumbled twice and settled for a field goal on three of their six red-zone drives. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, they blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead and ended with the tie that’s keeping them out of first place today.
Critics will say the Lions are fortunate to be where they are heading into October. The Philadelphia Eagles dropped seven passes in a three-point loss in Week 3, and the Los Angeles Chargers missed two chip-shot field goals with their punter playing as an injury fill-in for their kicker in a three-point loss a week earlier.
The way I see it, at the risk of sounding like Denny Green, the Lions are where they’re supposed to be, and about where many of us predicted (2-2) heading into the season.
That’s why I don’t buy into the prevailing sentiment that Sunday’s loss suddenly changes expectations for the Lions this fall. To believe that means you either sold the Lions short coming out of training camp – reasonable, considering their play in August and last year’s down season – or you’re ignoring the recency bias that comes with Sunday’s game.
Yes, the Lions looked very good against one of the best teams in football. They held reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes largely in check, did so without two of their best defensive backs, and got excellent play from their own quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
But they also looked very bad – for a quarter, at least – against one of the NFL’s worst teams earlier this fall, and in this league that’s often the difference between making the playoffs and going somewhere warm in January.
I bring this up not to ruin anyone’s plans for a parade, but simply to point out that there’s enough parity in the NFL that the Lions still can’t afford many stumbles going forward.
The Lions haven’t played a single division game yet, and while none of the Packers, Bears and Minnesota Vikings are elite, they’re all in the same boat as the Lions, good enough to win any game, home or away. The Cowboys, if healthy, are one of the best teams in the NFC. And road trips to Oakland and Washington and Denver, where the elements could be a factor, await.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Lions will make the playoffs this year, beyond their performance Sunday. Stafford’s play through four games – he has more touchdown passes (nine) than sacks (seven) and is averaging a career-best 8 yards per attempt – and the fact that this locker room appears bought-in to head coach Matt Patricia are chief among them.
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But there are reasons to worry as well. Stafford’s health is a red flag. If he had to gut his way through a hip injury in Week 4 after taking no sacks the previous two games, how will he survive the pounding of 12 straight games in October, November and December? And most concerningly, the inconsistent play.
More than talent, more than officials (they’re really not out to get you, Lions fans), more than injuries or the schedule or anything else, inconsistency has been the Lions’ biggest bugaboo for the 10 years I’ve covered the team, and I can’t help but walk away from Sunday’s game thinking that’s still the case.
Get one stop on fourth down, convert one red-zone opportunity, make one tackle after a fumble recovery when there was no whistle to be heard and you’re undefeated right now and in first place.
The Lions can beat anyone on their schedule, but they could last year as well (see: the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots). They can lose to anyone, too, or make a tie feel like a loss at least.
A quarter of the way into this season, that’s what we know about this team. They have the potential to be pretty good, but don’t hold your breath just in case.
Contact Dave Birkett at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.
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