It was likely only a matter of time before the luck finally ran out for the Detroit Lions. Are they better than last year? Definitely. But they've also had a magical season. Seemingly everything that could fall their way, DID fall their way. In no particular order, considering the following:
Befitting of a team that totally collapsed in the second half of last season to once again miss the playoffs -- the NFL handed them a relatively soft schedule this year. But it turned out to be far softer than they could have imagined.
Of course, like any other team, the Lions had to play 6 games within their own division. Home and home with the other three. Look what happened in the NFC North. Other than Week 1, which wasn't against the Lions, the Minnesota Vikings were forced to play without all-world running back Adrian Petersen for the entire year. After a decent start, the Chicago Bears pulled a 2013 Lions' act. The whole team appeared to lose it's way, including QB Jay Cutler. That left only the Packers as decent competition within the Lions own division. I'll get back to that.
Of the other ten games, it turned out only two Lions opponents would wind up with winning records. So counting the Bears and Vikes, out of 16 games the Lions would only play four against good teams. (Two with the Packers and games against Arizona and New England on the road -- the only other tough ones). Schedules just don't get any softer than that. To boot, in the week before the Lions were to face the Cards out west, Arizona starting QB Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending injury. Definitely advantage Lions. They lost anyway but, still, it was a huge break. They would predictably get trashed in New England. No surprise there.
The improbable comeback dept. Even against sub-par teams the Lions staged several improbable late-game comebacks to eke out victories, some bordering on miracles. Was it talent, poise, skill, and finding a way to win? Maybe. Or were other factors involved? Like questionable calls that always went against the Lions in the past suddenly turning out in their favor. Like last second desperation heaves by QB Matthew Stafford that against all odds were caught. Like having lost a game in jolly old London against the Atlanta Falcons on a last second missed field goal -- only to be given a second chance on a penalty against THEMSELVES to finally prevail. Has that ever even happened before?
Even in the recently concluded regular season finale @ Green Bay the Lions caught a break. All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers was visibly hobbled by a calf injury. On the flip side, considering how many quarterbacks have gone down over the year around the league, the Lions were blessed that Stafford wasn't one of them. Once known as a "china doll", because he seemed to break so easily upon contact, Stafford survived the entire season without a majory injury. This, despite him being one of the most sacked QBs in the league. That's just luck.
Much has been said and written about how these aren't the SOL, Same Old Lions, but they've been SOL (I'd dearly love to spell it out, but I think a certain editor would not be amused) in a different way at Lambeau since 1991. Twenty two chances and twenty two losses. After the recently concluded game -- make it 23 -- both ways. The Packers defeated the Lions 30-20, even covering the point spread.
Much has also been said and written about how new coach Jim Caldwell has transformed the current Lions. Maybe. He preaches this, he preaches that, and everybody has bought into his philsophy. So why is it that in the biggest game the Lions have played since they got blasted out of their last playoff appearance a few years ago, they reverted back to the boneheads they had become infamous for in years past? Offense, defense, special teams, you name it, when the pressure was on in their biggest game of the year -- they reverted right back to SOL. They've seen improvement under Caldwell, but it's like the bonehead gene remains in their collective DNA. Throw in incredible good fortune, as mentioned above, and it can be disguised for a while. But it's still there.
So in their best chance to be division champions in two decades (and finally break that pesky 22-game losing streak), against a team with a hobbled quarterback, the Lions came up short. Again.
The consequences were huge. Instead of being a #2 playoff seed, getting a bye-week to heal up and then a home game, the Lions have to hit the road as a #6 seed next Sunday. They'll face the Cowboys down in Big D. Not an enviable task.
Da Boys have been coming on of late. Instead of Tony Romo pulling his usual December swoon, he seems to be getting better. They've got Demarco Murray, the league's leading rusher, and terrific line play on both sides of the ball. Throw in Dez Bryant and Jason Witton, arguably amongst the top 3 at their positions, other talented players all over the field, and beating Jerry Jones' crew at his palace, cheerleaders and all, presents a daunting challenge indeed.
And let's not forget that while the Cowboys appear to be peaking at just the right time -- the Lions had been squeaking out improbable victories by the peach fuzz of their chinny chin chins. Will another miracle happen for the Lions in Big D? It's possible, but not likely.
Consider: Though he's put up some gaudy passing stats in the last few years (mostly due to heaving it in the general direction of Calvin Johnson), Matthew Stafford hardly lives up to the billing of a top quarterback. Why? Because in his career 16 road starts against teams with winning records, he has ZERO wins. Looking at those numbers a different way -- Stafford has played for 6 full seasons. Not counting the games he was injured along the way, six seasons time eight road games each equals 48 games -- and only 16 of them were against teams with winning records? That's further testimony as to how weak the Lions' schedules have been during that time.
Ah hell, it probably doesn't matter anyway. After a couple early stumbles, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have regained their form and look to be as formidable as last year's version. They're the #1 NFC seed and will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
And who's going to beat the Legion of Boom is their own backyard?
The Lions, even assuming the Georgia Peach finally wins a road game against a winning team and they eventually get that far? Please. That could get ugly.
Though, like Dorothy, the Lions have merrily skipped along the yellow brick road this season, magically avoiding one peril after another (and sold another few billion gallons of Honolulu blue and silver Kool-Aid enroute to the die-hard suckahs), they are simply not a Super Bowl caliber team. Not even close.
Yet on the other hand, yours truly almost hopes they find a way to face the Seahawks down the road.
The logic is simple. What was Dorothy's destination? Emerald City, right? And what did she find when she finally got there? It was all a dream, and she just wanted to go home.
If the Lions ever make it to Seattle, the Emerald City in it's own right, they won't find a kindly old Wizard awaiting them. Not only would they face reality, but their dream woud likely turn into a nightmare. Even Jim (Glinda) Caldwell, the good witch of the NFC north, would be powerless to help them. To the Lions, "there's no place like home" as well. They went 7-1 this season. On the road, they went a mediocre 4-4, with all four wins against teams with losing records.
Yet in the end, Dorothy Gale, an appropriate surname considering a tornado got that whole Ozfest started, just wanted to be back in the loving arms of Auntie Em. It worked out.
Over the years, the Lions have been in the not-so-capable arms of a few ems themselves. There were Marty Mornhinweg, Mariotti, Mariucci, and Matt Millen. Even today, the team president is Martin Mayhew. Their collective history would strongly suggest this Daddy Em thing has NOT worked out so well. And who, pray tell, was Dorothy's daddy anyway? Did he bail out of Kansas for free agency when the precocious brat started singing about rainbows? And what happened to mom? Did she run off too? That must have been one ugly baby.
Alas, so many questions we don't know the answers to. Sigh.
Kind of like the NFL playoffs, until they actually start happening. Anything's possible. But some things are highly improbable.....