By now, I’m sure you’ve heard: the Detroit Lions’ 2011 schedule has been released, and not only will the Lions be playing a primetime game, not only will they be playing on Monday Night Football, but the Lions will be hosting the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.
I was there the last time the Lions played on Monday Night Football. It was the first (and last) time I watched the Lions in the Silverdome, and it was a trainwreck of a game where Kurt Warner put on a quarterbacking clinic, while Ty Detmer and Charlie Batch combined to put on a quarterbacking circus. It devolved into chants of “Let’s Go, Red Wings” by the second half. The lone bright spot was getting to move down to 20th-row, 50-yard-line seats in the fourth quarter.
This time, though, the Lions are going to be out for revenge: against the league for blackballing them for so long, and against the Bears for last season’s stolen victory—and I’m going to do everything I can to be there.
But what about, you know, the rest of the games?
Don't be too concerned about the Lions being in a 7-way tie for the third-hardest strength of schedule in the NFL. It is, after all, the NFL—a game rigged to produce parity—and teams’ winning percentages vary wildly from year to year. There’s a reason I call the exercise of going down the schedule and predicting wins and losses a “Completely Useless Waste of Time.”
If you follow that 2011 NFL Strength of Schedule link, you’ll see the swing in opponent winning percentage is about 5% off of 8-8 in either direction; pretty even considering all the moving parts that go into it. Instead, let’s look at a few key matchups:
Week 1: at Tampa Bay
Last season, I called the Bucs an "alternate reality" version of the Lions:
What if the Lions had brought in a Tampa 2 coach, like Leslie Frazier, and made evolutionary, rather than evolutionary, changes? The Buccaneers drafted Josh Freeman--a quarterback I'd championed as a possibility for the Lions two years ago--and, of course, the "other" monster DT available in this draft, Gerald McCoy. Much ink has been spilled along those lines, so I won't tip over another barrel--but in many ways, the Bucs represent an "alternate reality" version of the Lions.
Yes, the Bucs are an excellent benchmark for the Lions. Last year, of course, the Lions went down to Tampa Bay and won, breaking the eternal road losing streak. Presuming free agency and the draft (and, of course, the season) all happen, attempting to repeat the feat will be a great measuring stick for the Lions. Just like last season, though, this first week will be enormous. Three of the first four games are on the road, and if they don’t win this one they’ll struggle to keep their head above water.
Week 4: at Dallas
The phrase "at Dallas" generates a visceral reaction: “Oh NO! AT DALLAS!” But really, the Cowboys are an aging team coming off a 6-10 season. The Lions played AT DALLAS last season, too—and people forget the Lions were leading by 5 in the 3rd quarter, before the Cowboys were wrongfully awarded a kickoff return touchdown. This time, the Lions will get a chance to right a wrong—and again, if they don’t, they’ll be likely be 1-3 or even 0-4. A win would give them huge buzz and momentum going into Monday Night Football.
The Lions’ schedule softens in the middle: back-to-back home games against San Francisco and Atlanta, a road game against Denver, then the latest bye week the Lions have had in years. I’d expect the Lions to win two of those three.
Week 10: at Chicago
Just five weeks, and four games, after Monday Night Football, the Lions will go to Solider Field for the rematch. I have not been the biggest fan of the Bears’ approach to rebuilding, but Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli both did excellent work last year: Martz adjusted his playbook to match his personnel, and Rod Marinelli got the most out of the Bears’ talented-but-inconsistent defensive line. I’m not sure what to make of the Bears for 2011, but if the Lions win on MNF, I suspect the Bears get one back here. This one will have major playoff implications—for both teams.
Thanksgiving: vs. Green Bay
The Lions played the reigning Super Bowl champions very, very tough last season, and the NFL took notice. Scarily, both teams should be better this season, and this Turkey Day matchup should have the nation licking its chops beforehand, and loosening its belt afterwards. I’m expecting this to be one for the ages, and it could very even be for the division lead. By my count, the Lions “should” be one or two games behind the Pack coming into it.
Week 15: at Oakland
Huh? Oakland? Not at New Orleans? Not hosting Minnesota? No, this trip to the Black Hole has all the hallmarks of a trap game. Oakland, for all their many hilarious faults, were an 8-8 team last year—and some of their strengths dovetail obnoxiously with some of Detroit’s weaknesses. A winnable, late-season road game, when the Lions are fighting for a playoff spot in a cut-throat division, is exactly the kind of test the Lions must pass.
Week 17: at Green Bay
If the Lions want to make the playoffs, this is the ultimate crucible. The Lions have not won in Lambeau since before the the first President Bush authorized the first attack of the first Gulf War. The Packers will be defending their
division crown very good season last year, and NFL title—and whoever loses the Thanksgiving Day contest will stop at nothing to win this one. The stakes in this game could be anywhere from “Meaningless” to “Winner Gets Division Title and First-Round Bye;” if it’s the latter than we’ll all be ten times more excited about this matchup than we are now about the Monday Night Football game.