Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, in reaction to a notable Lions victory (I believe it was this one), once said: “Hang on, folks. We have ourselves a football team.” As it turns out, we didn’t—the Packers went on to bounce the Lions from the playoffs in the first round. I’m tempted to use the same line today--though not to describe a perennial also-ran who gutted out a must-win win.
I’m tempted to use that line to describe a team coming off an 0-16 season, the worst season ever. I’m tempted to use that line to describe a franchise that looked like it had no business taking the field against NFL competition. I’m tempted to use that line in reaction to the Lions 18-17 preseason win over the Colts--not because our football team finally came of age, but because we appear to have established a minimum standard: The Lions appear to be an actual NFL football team.
Coming into the game, I was positively mortified. I had nightmares of Peyton Manning rending the defense helpless; Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez leaving cleat marks down the back of Henry and Buchanon. I had visions of Gunther sending three blitzers, and Manning simply lofting it over their heads to wide-open wideouts.
The stat line insists that the reality wasn’t that far from the nightmare: Manning was 12-of-15 for 123 yards and a score. Though he is to NFL quarterbacks what Mary Poppins is to nannies—practically perfect in every way—the fact remains that the Colts only scored 14 points in four drives with Manning in.
This means that the Lions successfully held the Colts’ starters to no points on half of their drives—much as you would expect from an actual football team, if not a winning one. Instead of being down 21-0 with time still left in the first quarter, the Lions were actually UP 10-7 at halftime! It’s incredible what a little running-and-stopping-the-run will get you. Oh yes, about that:
- The Lions posessed the ball for 34:21, versus the Colts’ 25:39. This was much more imbalanced in the Lions' favor during the game, thanks to some epic first-half drives.
- The Lions converted 60% of their third downs, which is a mind-bogglingly high number for the Lions--their calling card, for as long as I can remember, has been incomplete passes on third down.
- The Lions outrushed the Colts, 151-50.
- The Lions outpassed the Colts, 261-249.
- Of the Lions' TWENTY FIVE first downs, 17 of them came from passes.
Of course, all was not rainbows and butterflies; the Lions were penalized 6 times for 75 yards, struggled in the red zone (1-of-3), the blitzes were in fact exploited for some long completions, and Matt Stafford threw another "rookie" pick. However, note the difference here: instead of fluky turnovers, penalties, and late-game threes-ont-threes heroics turning an early deficit into a win, the Lions fundamentally won this game. In terms of offense versus defense, ones versus ones, the Lions were better than the Colts.
Yes, Peyton Manning had a great statistical day, but the Lions won by keeping him off the field; in order for Manning to run four drives for the Colts, he had to stay in past halftime! The Lions ran the ball, early and often; the offensive line opening holes and seams. The Lions threw the ball, with legitimately good protection opening up the deep pass (Megatron 4-for-67, D. Williams 4-for-63). The Lions effectively used the screen pass, over and over and over. And, despite all the handwringing over the defensive tackle starters and depth, and despite the Lions allowing over 2,700 yards on the ground last year, the Lions stopped the run. Joe Addai and Donald Brown gained only 38 yards on 12 rushes--less than 3.2 yards per carry.
I'm certainly not going to suggest that the Lions are ready for playoff contention. All we really know is that when it's starters versus starters, base offenses and defenses only, the Lions can control the line of scrimmage against a team not historically known for doing so. Still, that is incredible progress from last season. Assuming the Lions' coaching staff can scheme, gameplan, and adjust much better than last season's, we now know that the Lions will not be a laughingstock again. We know they won't go 0-32. We know that when they take the field for real in less than two weeks (!), the Lions will have a chance to win.
Hang on, folks. We just might have ourselves a football team.