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December 5th Keith Gave

 

December 5, 2016

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

The Detroit Lions didn’t quite punch their ticket to the playoffs in Sunday’s impressive 28-13 victory Sunday at New Orleans, but they surely established themselves as the favorite to represent the NFC’s North Division in the Super Bowl playoffs.

 

With four weeks left in the regular season, there are still a few unsettled questions, but this much we know:

 

5. It would take a collapse of epic, Lion-esque proportions for them to screw this up, but this is Detroit, remember. Weirder things have happened. But at 8-4, two games ahead of Green Bay and Minnesota, it looks awfully good. If Detroit goes 2-2 the rest of the way, both teams would have to run the table to tie for the division title at 10-6.

 

Detroit plays last-place Chicago on Sunday, followed by games at New York against the Giants and at Dallas before finishing the season at home against Green Bay in what has the makings of a classic conclusion to the regular season.

 

Green Bay, a 21-13 winner Sunday over Houston, plays at home to Seattle, at Chicago, at home to Minnesota before finishing up at Ford Field.

 

Minnesota plays at Jacksonville on Sunday, followed by visiting Indianapolis, at Green Bay and visiting Chicago.

 

Bear in mind that in the event of a tie, Detroit has beaten Minnesota twice, but lost at Green Bay – which could make the season finale a must-win for Detroit in the event of a tied won-lost record with the Packers.

 

4. Yes, the Lions are capable of winning by more than six points. But to do it on the road in a loud and hostile environment against a good team with a great quarterback – in a game with serious post-season implications – was extraordinary, really.

 

It was one of those wins that commanded the attention of everybody in the league. It screamed: “This is real. Be forewarned, we’re not your old man’s Detroit Lions.”

 

With their seventh victory in the past eight games, these Lions own the best eight-game stretch in a season since, well, your old man’s Lions, in 1995, when Detroit won the final seven games that year and finished with a 7-1 record over the final eight games.

 

3. The Lions made the right decision to keep Jim Caldwell as coach – a move said to be largely influenced by team owner Martha Ford after she cleaned house in the front office. Overcoming a 1-3 start, the Lions have compiled an 8-4 record through 12 games for the second time in three seasons under Caldwell.

 

He joins Buddy Parker (nine in in 1952 and 10 in 1953) as the only coaches in team history to notch 8-plus wins during the season’s first 12 games at least twice in their first three years as Lions head coach. Caldwell led the Lions to an 8-4 record through 12 games in 2014.

 

It’s still early, but that’s the kind of stuff that can put a guy into the Coach of the Year conversation.

 

2. Teryl Austin is coaching his last season as the Lions’ defensive coordinator. A perennial candidate for a head coaching job in recent years, he can use this game, by his undermanned defense, as his calling card for teams looking for the right guy to lead their teams when the firing-hiring season gets under way, soon.

 

This was an absolutely masterful performance against the NFL’s most powerful offense led by its most productive quarterback, Drew Brees.

 

By holding the Saints, who entered the game averaging 30.4 points per game, to 13 points on Sunday, Detroit has now held opponents to 20 points or less in six-straight games, something a Lions team hasn’t achieved since 1991. Under Austin, and during Caldwell’s watch, the Lions have held opponents to 20 points or less in 25 of the team’s 44 games played since the beginning of the 2014 season. Since Week 7, the Lions have allowed only 16.3 points per game, and have limited opponents to 13 points in each of the past two games.

 

And while we’ve talked about the offense’s heroics under Matt Stafford to win games in the closing seconds, how about the defense? Safety Miles Killebrew’s interception on the final play of the game was the Lions’ fifth interception this season in the final two-minutes of the fourth quarter, which leads the NFL this season and are the most by the Lions since they registered five such interceptions in 1991. Killebrew’s interception also marked the third game in a row that the Lions intercepted a pass in the final two minutes of the game.

 

1. Finally, by leading his team to a club-record 11 straight seasons, Dak Prescott is the heavy favorite to win league MVP honors this season. But Stafford damned sure belongs in that conversation, too.

 

Everybody in the NFL expected him to get schooled by Brees in a shootout, Sunday. In a game that had a lot of eyes on it, Brees threw three interceptions and failed to throw a TD pass for the first time in 60 games (hats off again to the Detroit defense). Stafford, meantime, continued to rewrite Detroit’s record books.

 

He completed 30 of 42 passes (71.4 percent) for 341 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 111.3 (compared to 63.3 for Brees). Stafford also set a franchise record by completing 13 consecutive pass attempts, breaking the previous record set by Jon Kitna (12, at Arizona in November 2006. With 341 passing yards against the Saints, Stafford surpassed 3,000 passing yards for the season.

He has 3,224 yards through 12 games. He has thrown for 3,000-plus yards for the sixth-straight season. In the first half Sunday, Stafford completed 19 of 23 passes (82.6 percent), the eighth time in his career that he has compiled a completion percentage of 80-plus-percent in the first half of a game

 

And clearly Stafford enjoys playing against the Saints. In leading the Lions to victories in each of the past two seasons against New Orleans, Stafford has completed 52-of-67 passes (77.6 percent) for 595 yards, five touchdowns and a passer rating of 128.5.

 

Yes, it’s still a tad early, but consider this: If the Lions keep this up we’re not only looking at a playoff berth, but a post-season game at Ford Field. And first-round bye is still on the table.

 

Might be time to consider some new words to go with that acronym we’ve been using to describe this team for generations: SOL – Salute our Lions? They’ve certainly earned some love.

 

-30-

 

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