At the end of an interview at the Lions' practice facility during training camp in 2010, coach Jim Schwartz left with a final word to a reporter: "You'll be coming back here." It was Schwartz's not-so-subtle way of saying he was building a winner and a must-watch team. And he was right.
Nothing is subtle about the Lions as they enter the postseason for the first time since 1999. Young, dynamic playmakers dominate the roster, turning Detroit into a team that could be trouble for a decade. But can the Lions make a deep playoff run now?
Detroit weathered a season of taut games and heart-stopping finishes, which bodes well for the elevated pressure of the postseason. After two injury-plagued years, Matthew Stafford moved within range of the elite quarterbacks, posting pinball numbers by spreading the football around. Though his bad patches could be really bad (see Nov. 13 at Chicago), there were fewer as the season wore on. While Calvin Johnson stretches defenses and draws double teams, Stafford must remain patient and continue to use his other weapons, such as tight end Brandon Pettigrew and wide receivers Nate Burleson and Titus Young.
When Stafford is on, the Lions can score in bunches, a crucial ability against the NFC's explosive offenses. And when Detroit has a lead, its feisty defense becomes even more so, freely attacking quarterbacks who are forced to throw on first, second and third down. Few offenses want to face a Schwartz-coached defense that knows the pass is coming.
But one of the Lions' biggest battles in January will be against themselves. They ranked fourth in penalties and second in personal fouls and must prove they're mature enough—especially volatile defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh—to keep their emotions in check in the playoffs. Too often the Lions crossed the line from tough to boorish.
Even after the fiery Schwartz chased 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh across the field during Handshakegate on Oct. 16, Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders lauded Detroit's coach for changing the team's losing culture. "We love him," Sanders says. "Bottom line is, he knows how to win and he cares about winning. He's going to get the best out of his players."
Schwartz has sparked the Lions. We'll soon see if the hottest flame burns longest or burns out fastest.
Percentage of the Lions' plays that were runs, an NFL low for 2011. Top rusher Jahvid Best (390 yards) played just six games before going on IR in November with his second concussion of the season.
Combined sacks for tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, first-round picks in 2010 and '11, respectively. Suh's sack total dropped from 10 to four; Fairley missed seven games with foot and ankle injuries.
ON THE SPOT
While he has benefited from lining up beside defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh—who commands double teams and chipping running backs—end Cliff Avril is forcing offensive coordinators to deal with him as a threat in his own right. Avril's speed off the edge and nose for the football make him one of Detroit's defensive game-changers. The 2008 third-round pick has seen his sack totals rise each year, from five in '08 to 5½ in 09, 8½ in '10 and 11 this season. His signature play of 2011: leaping to intercept a Philip Rivers pass at the line and returning it four yards for a touchdown in the Week 16 win that clinched Detroit's playoff berth.
JUSTIN EDMONDS/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
MEGA LIFT Johnson provides a superhuman target for Stafford, but when he's doubled the QB must trust his other receivers.
MANNY FLORES/CAL SPORT MEDIA (AVRIL)