The Stretch Run: Defining the 2016 Detroit Lions

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DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 11: Quarterback Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions celebrates his touchdown during fourth quarter action against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on December 11, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

To say that the 2016 Detroit Lions season has been unpredictable would be a considerable understatement. After a frustrating 1-3 start, things looked bleak for this franchise, but after a stunning turnaround, the Lions have won eight of their last nine contests and sit in first place in the NFC North with a 9-4 record.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed an NFL-record eight fourth quarter comeback victories, and is gaining recognition as a dark horse MVP candidate, while the Lions are in contention for a first round bye in the NFC Playoffs. What’s remarkable about all this is that the Lions, for all their success, could still conceivably miss the post-season altogether. With only three games left on a very difficult schedule, the Lions must continue their string of clutch play if they want to make a successful playoff push.

The Stretch Run: Defining the 2016 Detroit Lions

In order to understand the situation the Lions find themselves in, it is necessary to analyze the opponents that stand in their way as they try to clinch a post-season appearance. Unfortunately, if you’re a Detroit fan, this isn’t the sort of list you want to see.

With back-to-back games on the road in Weeks 15 and 16, followed by a season finale at home in Week 17, the competition couldn’t be much stiffer. Every team remaining on the schedule is a playoff contender, and each of these franchises figures to have something on the line when they face the Lions. Let’s start with Week 15.

At the New York Giants

The New York Giants pose a particularly difficult challenge for the Lions. At 9-4, the Giants are one of the only teams in the NFL with as many wins as Detroit, and they have just as much on the line. The Giants are two games back of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, but this is a team that has handed the Cowboys their only two defeats of the season. As improbable as it might appear to the naked eye, the Giants are still playing for not only an NFC East title, but the number one seed in the NFC.

Additionally, the Giants boast one of the NFL’s most underrated defenses. Allowing only 18.8 points per game, this team is a threat to derail the Lions’ ball control-oriented offense. It will be very difficult to sustain drives against this team, and the Lions will have a very difficult time running on the Giants’ stout front. It remains to be seen how Stafford’s injured finger will affect him in the cold weather at MetLife stadium, but it goes without saying that if the Lions can’t move the ball through the air in this contest, it could be a very long day at the office.

At the Dallas Cowboys

Speaking of tough tests, next on the schedule is a Monday night contest with the 11-2 Dallas Cowboys in Week 16. Currently the top- seeded team in the NFL, the Cowboys are an absolute force in the NFC, in spite of a couple of shaky performances recently. “America’s Team” boasts, quite possibly, the best offensive line in football, and the Lions will have an exceptionally difficult time generating a pass rush. Oh, and Ezekiel Elliott is pretty good too.

The Cowboys defense is also criminally underrated (allowing 18.3 points per game) and could give the Lions some problems as well. It’s clear that this is a team that has found a winning formula, and has utilized it to near-perfection in 2016. In spite of such an excellent record, the Cowboys still feel like they have something to prove as they try to wrap up the top seed in the NFC. The Lions have been fortunate enough to capitalize on some of the mistakes that opponents have made late in games to secure last minute victories. This will be a difficult assignment against a Dallas squad that usually manages to avoid such costly mistakes.

Home to the Green Bay Packers

If that wasn’t enough, the Lions return home in Week 17 to host their divisional rivals, the Green Bay Packers. While the Packers currently sit two games back of the Lions in the NFC North at 7-6, this race is far from over. For starters, the Pack is heating up. After four straight losses, Green Bay has recovered beautifully, winning three straight games in the process. Aaron Rodgers seems to have re-discovered his MVP form and that team is rolling, and at the right time, to boot.

Additionally, they won the first game with the Lions back in Week Three. Essentially, all the Packers have to do to win the division is gain one game on their rivals over the next two weeks, and then emerge victorious from the finale, in order to win the NFC North via tiebreakers. It’s not a simple task by any stretch, but it’s hardly impossible. As any Lions fan can tell you, there are very few scarier things that facing off with a surging Packers team in a late season contest.

What This Means For the Lions

Basically, 2016 has been a roller coaster ride for the Detroit Lions. With so many close games that have gone down to the wire, this team could just as easily be 4-9 as 9-4. What has remained unchanged is the fact that they have almost constantly found a way to win, and with three games to go, winning has never been more important.

It won’t be easy against such formidable competition. The Giants, Cowboys, and Packers (when healthy) are three of the league’s best teams, and while every game will likely be close, none of them are going to be gimmes. This is the time of the season where the 2016 Detroit Lions can cement themselves as true contenders in the NFC, or watch their playoff hopes crumble right in front of their eyes. Very seldom has a stretch of three games meant more to a franchise, but that is where this team finds itself right now.

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