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It's been the case all year, but was never more apparent than Sunday. Under coach Jim Caldwell, the Lions' identity has completely changed.

This has nothing to do with overcoming the "Same Old Lions" mantra. It's not about Caldwell's ability to keep his team focused on one day at a time.

The Lions have completely shifted their offensive goals this season. Instead of taking risks with hopes of being explosive, Caldwell has turned Matthew Stafford into a quarterback whose first goal is to not turn the ball over, the aspect of his game that haunted him the past two seasons.

With the new philosophy in place, the Lions are in the midst of their best season ever in terms of limiting turnovers. Dating back to 1941, the earliest STATS LLC has turnover statistics, the fewest turnovers the Lions had was 20 in 2004. With two games remaining, they have just 16 and are on pace to set a new franchise record.

Despite the unnecessary negative connotation, calling Stafford a "game manager" this year is absolutely accurate, and his ability to manage games is a key reason the Lions beat the Vikings, 16-14, Sunday and are 10-4 with a playoff berth looming.

Yes, the Lions offense has underperformed this year. A team with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate shouldn't rank 18th in yards per game and 23rd in points per game, and if the Lions hope to have success in the playoffs, they'll have to take more risks.

But the Lions have the NFL's No. 2 defense, and despite giving up 14 points in the first 20 minutes Sunday, the defense kept the Lions in the game, as it has all year. The Lions gained just 233 yards Sunday, and without Glover Quin's interception setting up their only touchdown and Darius Slay's interception putting them in field-goal range, they probably don't get to 16 points.

The excitement from back-to-back 34-point games dwindled Sunday as the Lions won their seventh game with 24 or fewer points, proving the defense is the engine that makes the team go and the offense simply needs to avoid costly mistakes.

Stafford this season has thrown just 10 interceptions, putting him on pace to have his best year protecting the football. Besides 2010, when he played just three games, Stafford's previous career low was 16 interceptions in 2011, not coincidentally the last time the Lions made the playoffs. During the Lions' current three-game winning streak, the only turnover by the offense was a lost fumble by Stafford against the Bears.

The Lions currently have a plus-8 turnover ratio with 24 takeaways and 16 giveaways, and unless something odd happens the last two games, this will be the first time since 2011 they finished with a positive ratio.

That's quite the turnaround from a Lions team with a minus-12 turnover ratio in 2013 and minus-16 in 2012. Former coach Jim Schwartz seemed to practice the philosophy that defense was supposed to win the turnover battle, and considering his background as a defensive coach, that was understandable.

Caldwell, an offensive-minded coach, recognizes that the offense limiting turnovers is the best way to win one of the game's most important statistics. During Caldwell's introductory news conference in January, he said the turnover battle is the "largest determinant as far as winning and losing."

On Monday, Caldwell, whose goal is a plus-4 ratio, explained his philosophy comes from studying legendary coaches Jake Gaither, Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno.

"They said if you can play defense and you have a good solid kicking game and you don't turn the ball over, you're going to have an opportunity to win more games than you lose," Caldwell said. "And I think our team — and particularly this past game — is a perfect example of that."

Against Minnesota Sunday, the Lions offense was largely ineffective. Stafford threw for just 153 yards and one touchdown. Joique Bell ran well with 15 carries for 62 yards, but the Lions finished averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The longest play was a 23-yard catch-and-run to Calvin Johnson in which linebacker Gerald Hodges perfectly picked cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Stafford this year has attempted 55 passes of 20 yards or longer, ranking 12th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He's averaging 3.9 deep shots per game. From 2011-13, he averaged 78.7 deep passes each year, and even if that's an average of 4.9 per game, that one extra deep pass is one more opportunity for an interception.

Caldwell said Sunday he wouldn't apologize for a win even if the offense struggled, and he shouldn't, even if the game was a wake-up call. But as long as the Lions continue to protect the football on offense and let their defense lead the show, they should have a chance to win against most teams.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (10-4) couldn't stop the Buffalo Bills from finishing 4-0 against the NFC North. With a 21-13 loss in Buffalo, Green Bay now has to win out to win the division. Meanwhile, the Bills proved that a good defensive front can stymie the Packers' offense, which should give the Lions a chance in Week 17.

* The Vikings (6-8) should've beaten the Lions, and if any of Blair Walsh's three missed field goals were good, they probably would've. Even though Minnesota will finish no better than .500, there are reasons for optimism — specifically on defense — looking toward the future.

* The Bears (5-8) host the Saints (5-8) on Monday Night Football. Maybe Jay Cutler will be motivated by offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer selling him out to an NFL Network reporter. Maybe not.

Around the NFL

* Browns rookie Johnny Manziel was awful in his first NFL start, going 10 of 18 for 80 yards with two interceptions in a 30-0 home loss to the Bengals. But, despite what you might see elsewhere, his career didn't end Sunday.

* Sorry Jim Caldwell, but Bruce Arians should be the NFL's coach of the year with the Cardinals at 11-3. And his call-it-like-it-is mentality is refreshing in an era when coaches frequently don't say anything about anything. "I love it when nobody says you have a chance to win. There is an 11-3 team and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out," Arians said after the Cardinals beat the Rams Thursday.

* Recommended reading: "Andrew Luck: The NFL's Most Perplexing Trash Talker," by Kevin Clark at the Wall Street Journal. Check it out.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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