Rogers: Lions’ flaws emerge, but division there for the taking

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is helped off the turf by teammates Travis Swanson and Theo Riddick after being sacked near the end of the fourth quarter.

Allen Park – About six months ago, when the NFL released it’s 2017 schedule, most Detroit Lions fans would have been pleased with a 3-3 start. But perceptions change, and a .500 mark at the bye is currently more a cause for concern than reason for optimism.

The starting slate looked brutal when the schedule came out in April. A hypothetically resurgent Arizona, a home tilt against Atlanta, the defending NFC champion, and road matchups against stout New York and Minnesota defenses. And no one was thinking a home game against Carolina or a road trip to New Orleans would be gimmies.

Many had to convince themselves that splitting those six was realistic. And if you got to the bye with three in the win column, anything was possible. But after subpar showings the past two weeks, down three scores in the fourth quarter to both the Panthers and Saints, momentum is going the wrong way.

Two weeks ago, we (yes, me included) were already talking about the playoffs. The Lions had knocked off the Vikings on the road, using a change-up game plan that revolved around running the ball and clock control. The team looked capable of winning a variety of ways, a hallmark of a postseason contender.

And had it not been for a heartbreaking replay review the week before, which ran the final eight seconds off the game clock and denied the Lions a final shot at the end zone, we might have been looking at a 4-0 team.

But the Panthers came to town and smacked some reality back into the Lions, taking advantage of flaws on both sides of the ball. The offense stagnated throughout the middle of the game, failing to generate first downs, let alone points. And the defense was scorched by quarterback Cam Newton.

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And Sunday, the downward spiral continued, thanks to a porous offensive line and the inability to protect the football. Plus, the defense once again had issues, this time against the run.

Suddenly, the Lions are finding a variety of ways to lose games, something a little more familiar around these parts, and certainly not the look of a playoff team.

In less than a month, we’re left questioning whether the Lions’ hot start was a mirage.

After all, the Cardinals had an eight-point lead in the second half when star running back David Johnson was knocked out of the game with an injury. The Giants, who have proven to be a bad team, were missing cornerback Janoris Jenkins, while wide receiver Odell Beckham was a far cry from full strength. And Minnesota was starting a backup quarterback, and were still ahead and running the ball effectively until rookie rusher Dalvin Cook tore his ACL and fumbled the ball on the same play, shifting the momentum.

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A win is a win is a win. The Lions did what you have to do, knocking down the pins set up in front of them. But offseason perceptions of those opponents have changed. In hindsight, the pins, if you will, might not have been very good.

And maybe neither are the Lions. It’s tough to say definitively, but they’re certainly more flawed than we initially realized. They’re also banged-up. The bye week comes at a much-needed time to clear their heads and lick their wounds.

But if you’re in need of some good news, there aren’t many good teams in the NFL this season. The middle class is as big as it has ever been and with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers potentially out for the season with a broken collarbone, the NFC North race remains wide open.

One game back of both the Packers and Vikings, the Lions hold the tiebreaker over one and could gain the same edge with a win in Green Bay in three weeks.

So maybe our preseason observation proved to be right after all – 3-3 is where the Lions needed to be to make their run. It just doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment with the two-game skid entering the bye. But if the Lions can patch some of their biggest issues, the NFC North is still there for the taking.