Just four years ago the Detroit Lions went 0-16. That doomed season spelled the end for head coach Rod Marinelli and general manager Matt Millen. In came new GM Martin Mayhew with no previous general managing experience. He brought in a new head coach, Jim Schwartz, who had been the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. He drafted his franchise quarterback, Georgia's Matthew Stafford in his first draft. Does this sound familiar to Indianapolis Colts' fans?
Things haven't gone as well for the Lions' rebuilding efforts, however, as they have for the Colts. Stafford only won two games his rookie season and six in his second year, despite having arguably the best receiver in the NFL to throw to in Calvin Johnson. The Lions broke through last season, finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. This season was to be the one where the Lions took the next step and battled Green Bay for NFC North supremacy.
The Lions head into Sunday's game with the Colts at 4-7. Even if they win out the rest of the way, their playoff hopes are all but gone. Six of the Lions seven losses have come by one score or less, including last week's Thanksgiving Day loss in overtime to the Houston Texans.
The Lions simply haven't been able to close out opponents. Their offense behind Stafford is clicking as planned. They have the top passing attack in the league and rank second in the NFL to New England in total offense. In terms of yards surrendered, their defense even ranks in the top third of the league. It's the little things that have been killing the Lions.
The Lions rank 26th in turnover margin and have a -7 deficit for the season. They rank dead last in the NFL in non-offensive touchdowns allowed. Perhaps most distressing for Jim Schwartz is the 65 yards in penalties they average each week, 29th in the NFL. By contrast, the still wet-behind-the-ears Colts rank 13th in the league in penalty yards.
Leading that charge is the team's other number one overall pick, DT Ndamukong Suh. Suh looked every bit the difference-making lineman when he was drafted in 2010. He recorded 66 tackles and 10 sacks in his rookie season. Since then he's had only 56 tackles and 8.5 sacks in over a season and a half. He's become known more for his egregious penalties and fines than his dominance on the field.
The most recent event took place last week when Suh kicked Texans QB Matt Schaub in the groin while flailing at a sack attempt. He wasn't suspended as their was no clear intent on his part, but he remains under the microscope of the NFL offices for his extra-curricular behavior.
The Colts represent everything the Lions hope to be. The Colts are well ahead of schedule in rebuilding from last year's 2-14 campaign. They enter the game at 7-4 and in the driver's seat for an AFC playoff berth. Though young and even playing with an interim head coach, they play fairly disciplined football and haven't had any off-the-field issues to speak of. Most importantly, the Colts have found a way to win close games, not lose them.
Tomorrow's game could be a watershed moment for both franchises. The Lions need to right their ship and get a win at home, even if it doesn't mean the playoffs. The Colts need to get a signature road victory to establish themselves.
Will the trends for both teams continue, or can the Lions summon their potential and send the Colts to defeat?
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