The Lions are a .500 team at the midpoint, but how will the rest of their season go?
A quick look at the standings in the NFL might reveal that the Lions are an average team. Their .500 record does indicate that. The Lions have had good games and bad; they have won games handily and let others slip through their fingers. In some cases, they have taken that idiom far too literally. There have been weeks of frustration, and weeks of jubilation. For Lions fans, there have been more ups and downs than the Hulk rollercoaster in Universal Studios, Orlando.
But things are looking up. I am far from an optimist regarding the team, I am not a pie in the sky dreamer. In our preseason picks, I predicted the team would be 1-7 right now. I have tweeted in the past that Lions fans should have been ecstatic with the team’s record based on who they had played. But after playing down the team’s prospects for eight games I could not be more excited about the second half of the year. We are eight games in, and that’s a big enough sample size that I feel comfortable making some comparisons, and extrapolating them to predictions. Here are the reasons I am excited about the next eight games, and you should be too.
Comparative Records of the Lions’ Opponents
The Lions are 4-4 despite having played only one team with a worse record than they have. The New York Giants are 1-7. The Arizona Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers, and the Atlanta Falcons are all 4-4 just like the Lions. The New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-2, while the Carolina Panthers are 6-3. The collective record of the Lions’ opponents for their first eight games is 31-26. Against opponents that have won a sizable majority of their games, the Lions have won as many as they lost.
The Lions’ second-half opponents are the Cleveland Browns (0-8), the Chicago Bears (3-5 twice), the Vikings (6-2), the Baltimore Ravens (4-5), The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6), the Cincinnati Bengals (3-5), and thePackers (4-4). The Lions play only one team with a winning record – the Vikings. They already beat that team at home in week four. The Lions’ opponents in the second half have a combined record of 25-40. The only team they face coming off a bye week is the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. By this admittedly imperfect metric, the Lions should finish the year with a 7-1 or 6-2 record in these games.
Relative Offense and Defense Rankings
The Lions rank 21st in the NFL in team defense. They face Cleveland (27), Chicago (29, twice), Minnesota (11), Baltimore (30), Tampa Bay (13), Cincinnati (32), and Green Bay (23). The Lions defense has a better rank than six of eight opponents they face to finish off the year.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions are 16th in the NFL in team offense. They face Cleveland (9), Chicago (8), Minnesota (4), Baltimore (7), Tampa Bay (28), Cincinnati (6), and Green Bay (25). The offense is more highly ranked in only two of eight contests. On the surface that looks like a tough row to hoe. Team defensive yards, however, are very dependent on game situations and may be misleading in many of these cases. Bad teams tend to face offenses in the second half that are trying to kill the clock and get away without injuries more than they are trying to move the ball and extend their lead. Lions fans saw that in the New Orleans game, where the Lions offense came very close to stealing a game against that kind of defense.
A Little Bit Deeper Dig
A better metric on both counts, in my opinion, is yards per play. The Lions rank 20th on offense and 8th on defense in those categories. They face Cleveland (25 defense, 30 offense), Chicago (23D/27O), Minnesota (31D/15O), Baltimore (27D/31O), Tampa Bay (4D/8O), Cincinnati (30D/25O), and Green Bay (9D/21O). The offense is better than the defense they will face in six of eight cases, and the defense is more highly ranked than all but one opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who they share the eighth-place rank with.
In combined rank for both sides of the ball, the Lions totaled 28. Only one of their opponents, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are better in this overall metric. The reason the Buccaneers are struggling is their awful special teams unit. They have gone through several field goal kickers in 2017.
A Much Deeper Dig
That is all well and good, but the devil is in the details. The Lions’ pass offense is ranked sixth in yards per attempt. The Bengals are third in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed. The Ravens and Vikings are tied, they have allowed the fourth-fewest yards per attempt. The Bears are 16th, the Browns are 21st, the Packers are 27th, and Tampa Bay is 28th. The Lions should be able to move the ball in the air with ease in five of eight games.
The Lions’ run offense is ranked 29th in yards per carry. The Browns are first, The Vikings are fourth, The Bengals are twelfth, the Bears are tied for thirteenth with the Packers, the Buccaneers are sixteenth, the Ravens are nineteenth, in rushing yards per attempt allowed. So if you’re looking for a rebound for the Lions’ running game, don’t count on it. The Lions are facing nothing but decent to very good run defenses.
The Lions’ pass defense sit sixth in yards per pass attempt allowed. The best passing offense they face per play is the Buccaneers who are third in the NFL per attempt. The Vikings are 16th, the Packers are 21st, the Browns are 22nd, the Bengals are 28th, the Ravens are 31st and the Bears are 32nd.
The Lions’ run defense ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed. They will face the Bears who are sixth, the Ravens who are eighth, The ninth-ranked Vikings, the Packers who are 21st, the Browns who are 23rd, the Buccaneers who are 28th, and the Bengals who are 32nd in the NFL.
The Lions have also dominated the turnover differential in 2017, currently sitting fifth in the league. They face teams that are all lower in that incredibly important ranking.
The Lions have come in 11th in average drive length, and 15th in drive length allowed. Only, Minnesota Green Bay and Tampa Bay have offenses that outrank the Lions defense. Green Bay has dropped monumentally without Aaron Rodgers at the helm, and the rest of the Lions’ opponents make up four of the bottom five offenses in the NFL at sustaining drives.
Minnesota, Cleveland, and Baltimore have defenses ranked better than the Lions offense in average drive length by football outsiders. Chicago and Cincinnati are close, but rank 12th and 13th respectively. Examining the actual number rather than relative ranking; Chicago and Cincinnati do allow fewer yards per drive than the Lions gain, however. More importantly, though, the Lions face only one team that has been gaining more yards per drive than they give up. Once again, that team is the Vikings, who have already dropped a home game to the Lions.
What That All Means
The Lions are unlikely to rebound running the ball, the one thing that the teams they are facing can almost all do is limit the running game. It’s just not a strength for the Lions in 2017. With that said the Lions’ passing game is likely going to continue moving the ball at a high level for most of the season because the teams they face are not particularly great at stopping that. The Lions face a lot of teams that are turning the ball over more often than they create turnovers, and are among the best in the NFL at getting the ball back into the offense’s hands. Defensively the Lions are probably a solid fantasy play for the rest of the season if they’re available in your league.
The Lions should win the majority of their games by almost any metric. Even a 5-3 record gets them to 9-7 which is almost always good enough to get one team a wildcard spot. It would have won the division for them in 2016 without a late-season surge from the Packers. My personal prediction is that they will go 6-2 in the remaining games, losing to the Vikings and what has jumped out as an obvious trap game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I have a lot of respect for them as a threat after watching them play the spoiler so many times. My final prediction is that the Lions finish the season 10-6, or 9-7 if Aaron Rodgers has a reason to risk himself at the end of the year.
You can find Ash getting into arguments on twitter @A5hcrack. He also drops in on the Lions’ subreddit from time to time at /r/detroitlions.