Sunday, November 10, 2013

Different Same Old Lions

@ Bears 19

Officers and Cadets, we've reached that rare point where I can say without the smallest trace of irony, "So what if Michigan football is a total piece of crap this year, at least we still have the Lions to look forward to". It's looking more and more like this year will be the first time since 1995 that the DTLs have won more games than the Wolverines, despite playing 3 to 5 more games every season.

Today's win at Chicago was huge for more reasons than one. First off, it puts the Lions alone in first place at 6-3. This is the first time since the NFC North division was created in 2002 that they have been in first place (alone or tied) at any point in the second half of the season. In a season where exorcising the demons of past ineptitude is becoming more and more of a theme, this is a significant milestone. With the Packers offense looking utterly incompetent without Aaron Rodgers, this incredibly could be a 2 or even 3 game lead atop the division by the time Green Bay comes to town for Thanksgiving (it's anyone's guess whether Rodgers will make it back in time for that game. Cutler probably came back a few weeks too early today). Pittsburgh played well at home today, so a hiccup after today's emotional road win certainly wouldn't shock anyone, but a home date against Greggy Boy Schiano's Buccaneers the next week should have the DTLs at worst at 7-4 and in first place for the Thanksgiving game. Additionally, the win today gives the DTLs the season sweep and therefore the tie-breaker over Chicago in case the Bears get hot when Cutler gets back to full strength and the two teams happen to finish the season tied for the lead. 

Finally, I think the way the Lions managed to hold on today speaks volumes about their determination to set themselves apart from past promising Lions teams who completely folded anytime the moment got a little too big for them. Let's be honest, the boys made one Same Old Lions mistake after another while clinging to that 4th quarter lead today, more than enough to blow this game, but every time they did something stupid, they immediately came back to make a big play and atone for these mistakes. Every time. Let's take a look at the biggest ones:
- Leading 14-10 early in the 4th quarter, the Bears offense is going nowhere, with Cutler uncomfortable against a swarming rush. It's looking more and more like their only chance to score again will be via a key turnover that gives them the ball deep in Lions territory. Sure enough, Stafford badly overthrows Calvin on third down, the Bears pick him off and return it inside the red zone. What happens next? The defense stands tall and forces a field goal. Stafford marches the offense down the field on the very next possession.
- Leading 14-13 midway through the 4th, Stafford leads a very strong drive to get the Bromos down to the Bears 17. Fauria commits the nearly unheard-of offensive face mask penalty to pretty much ruin any hopes of a touchdown. They still manage to stay in range for an easy enough 44 yard field goal which would force Chicago to score a touchdown. Akers hooks it, and Jay Cutler and company take over with good field position. What happens next? The defense stands tall again and forces a three and out.
- Still clinging to a one point lead, Stafford leads them down the field again. Reggie Bush caps off a 100 yard day with some timely inside runs for first downs. On third and ten, Stafford lobs a beautiful toss over Peanut Tillman's burnt business for Calvin's second touchdown catch of the day and an eight point lead.
- Leading 21-13 with just over two minutes left, backup QB Josh McCown comes in cold, needing to go eighty yards just to give the team a chance. Getting a first down right away is usually crucial to get any kind of confidence and rhythm in a late game drive, and Fairley makes it easy with a stupid 15 yard penalty to get the Bears in business. What happens next? The defense buckles down and makes a stop on third down near mid-field.
- 4th and 1, with a chance to salt the game away with a stop, the d-line gets no push because they jumped offsides (I think it was Fairley) and had to retreat to avoid getting flagged. With no pressure, McCown easily completes a pass to keep his team alive. He later finds Brandon Marshall in the end zone with 40 seconds left to make it 21-19.
- Leading 21-19, all the DTLs need to do is stop the 2-point conversion and they can sneak away with the win. And they stop it, rushing McCown and forcing a desperate heave out of the end zone...but Willie Young hits McCown late and gives the Bears one more chance, this time from the 1. What happens next? The defense stands tall yet again. Fairley powers through with the biggest play of his Lions career to date and mauls Matt Forte behind the line of scrimmage, and then Walks Like the Packers all the way up the field to celebrate. I have been a rather vocal critic of Fairley (though he clearly doesn't need my approval), but all the same, I give the guy credit. He made some big plays today.

Moving Forward

Next week should officially cement Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson as the greatest QB/WR combo in franchise history. Calvin's 2 touchdowns today give him 63 in his Lions career, passing Herman Moore as the club's all-time leader. Staff will have to wait one more week to reach his own milestone, but he now is only 72 yards away from taking the large step towards reversing the curse of Bobby Layne and becoming the team's all-time leader in passing yardage. That's at the age of 25, and despite two injury shortened seasons. Staff is the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, and as long as he can stay healthy, he's still another two or three years away from even entering his prime.

It's not saying much, but this year overall is probably the best that I've ever seen the Bromos offensive line play. They've only allowed ten sacks in the first nine games, and they've done a good job of opening up some running lanes for Reggie and Joique Bell at key times throughout the first half of the season. It's difficult for a fan to properly analyze the play of offensive lineman because you don't always know what you're looking for (for instance, I have no idea why Lewan from Michigan is ranked so high on people's draft boards, from where I'm sitting, he looks just as bad if not worse than the rest of that pathetic unit), but  mid-round draft pick Larry Warford especially has seemed to me to be very steady in there as a rookie starter--no penalties, protecting the QB, opening up the run game. Watching him and Reiff develop on the O-line should be...well, exciting clearly isn't the right word, but you get the idea.

Next week the DTLs go on the road again, this time to the land of the Little, Yellow, Flayyygs. For the first month of the season, Pittsburgh matched their Terrible Towels with an equally terrible football team, but following their trip to London, they've gone 3-2 and shut down Buffalo today. The Steelers defense has already allowed 40 and 34 points in losses to Chicago and Minnesota, so hopefully the trend will continue and culminate in a third straight loss to an NFC North foe. It would be understandable if Detroit came out flat at Pittsburgh, following today's emotional road win against their oldest rivals. Then again, this edition of the Same Old Lions does look a little bit different.

By the way, I still owe you guys an AFC Midseason Report.

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