Another Michigan sports team is preparing to make its season debut. On Sept. 11, the Detroit Lions open the NFL regular season in Tampa Bay. A new season can only mean one thing around these parts: more staff predictions. We've already told you how we think Michigan and Michigan State (click the team names to see into the future) will end up doing in 2011; now, here are our premonitions for the Lions.
Sean Yuille: 10-6
The last time the Lions were coming off of a perfect preseason and optimism was this high, they rewarded fans by going 0-16. Since then the franchise has been rebuilding (again), and now they have assembled enough talent that a winning record doesn't seem like some impossible feat. In fact, many expect the Lions to have a winning record, myself included.
I have fallen into the trap of being drunk on the Lions Kool-Aid before, but this year just seems different. The Lions finally have a franchise quarterback that is poised for a breakout season if he can stay healthy, and they have many other weapons on offense with Jahvid Best, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, just to name a few. Even the defense has a number of weapons, and they are led by Ndamukong Suh, who is one of the best young defensive players in all of football.
If the Lions don't experience any significant injuries in 2011, I think they will finish with a 10-6 record. The schedule does them no favors early on, but I think the Lions will play well enough to get through the adversity and set the tone early on for a winning season. I'm still not quite sure if 10-6 will be enough to make the playoffs since the Lions play in such a tough division and will be in contention with a number of other teams for a wild card spot, but even if they don't, a 10-6 record would be something to build off of going into 2012.
Ryan Weiss: 9-7
I feel like 8-8 is too low and 10-6 might be too much to ask for from a team that hasn't had a winning season since the B.M. (Before Millen) era. However, you can't deny the momentum this team has: the Lions are technically on an eight-game winning streak right now after winning their last four games in 2010 and completing a perfect preseason. So make of that what you will.
The million dollar question is obviously how quarterback Matthew Stafford will hold up over a 16-game season. If he stays healthy, my 9-7 prediction might be selling the team short a bit. He's been brilliant in the preseason and it's clear that this team's success will live and die by his right arm.
The defense still has its questions, but it has far less than we're accustomed to seeing. The Lions have built arguably the best defensive line in football and aren't too shabby at linebacker either. Again the concern is with the secondary, which was heavily banged up last season. If the secondary can keep the big play off the board the unit as a whole should be fine.
At 9-7, it probably won't be enough for a playoff berth, especially playing in a division that features the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers. But still, we're talking baby steps here. Hopefully this season will lead to taking that big step in the near future, and I feel that Jim Schwartz is the first coach in the last 10 years that can make it happen.
Brian Packey: 9-7
Lions fans know it's not easy being a Lions fan, but despite all the mocking and ridiculing us masochists have to withstand on a yearly basis, a winning season is going to feel infinitely better than what those spoiled Steelers or Packers fans seemingly experience every year. I know it.
Once I return from the hospital from having my stomach pumped of the offseason Kool-Aid for the second straight year, I'm really going to revel in what truly looks promising to be the Lions' first winning season since 2000. Yes, it's the 11th hour and I'm stumbling around with an empty solo cup in my hand, looking for more juice, but I can't help myself. I've put so much sweat and tears into the Lions during my life (and for the last seven years, money at the bar), I need this; please let me have this.
Like I wrote last year, Matthew Stafford is going to explode this season, assuming ... I'm not even going to finish that stupid sentence. Stafford was unreal in the, meh, three games he played in last season, racking up six touchdowns opposite just one interception and a 91.3 passer rating. This preseason he was even better. For the first time in my life, though, I'm not even most excited about the offense. I can't wait to see the havoc Suh and co.'s going to wreak on opposing quarterbacks and how awesome it's going to make our mediocre at best secondary look. And that's without first round draft pick monster Nick Fairley, whose return will obviously be equivalent to the Tigers trading for Doug Fister at the trade deadline.
The Lions schedule looked admittedly ominous at first, but that was until I saw the preseason play out (and I watched nearly every game to get the most out of the preseason live I ill-advisedly splurged on). Beforehand, I think it was realistic the Lions could start 0-4, but now I'm thinking 3-1 is more believable. The Lions' schedule after Thanksgiving is especially brutal, but if they win the games they should win throughout the season (I count seven) and squeak out "upsets" on a couple other Sundays, they should be fighting for a playoff spot until the very end. It might really happen this time, Mommy!
Ian Casselberry: 9-7
I want to believe. The four games the Lions won to end last season made it fun to watch this team. I should know better than to get excited about a 4-0 preseason, but beating the Patriots seemed like a statement. The defensive line can make a quarterback - even Tom Brady - miserable. The linebacking corps looks much improved. Yes, the secondary is still a concern, but if the front seven plays well, they'll cover some holes.
Matthew Stafford also showed how good he can be. The injuries will be a concern until he shows he can stay healthy. But Stafford's execution looks to have caught up with his confidence and physical gifts. He looked assured running the offense, showing good timing, touch and a strong arm. Losing Mikel Leshoure is big, because I think the Lions will need that big back to get tough yards up the middle. But the passing game might be strong enough to spread the field and provide space to run.
The early schedule is a bit rough, and fans might get discouraged after the first couple of games. But stick with these Lions. They'll get on a roll, and beat one or two teams you might not expect. I have them at 5-3 going into the bye week. The second half of the schedule is tougher overall, with both games against the Packers coming in that part of the season. Plus, Detroit will have to face what should be two of the best teams in the NFL, with the Saints and Chargers. I see the Lions sweeping both the Bears and Vikings, and that will be the difference in finishing over .500 for the first time in 10 seasons.