Niyo: Lions’ season could go south in a hurry in competitive NFC North

Detroit News

The NFL season is finally here, after the longest, strangest offseason anyone can remember.

But for the Lions, here’s the catch: In some ways, this 2020 season could be over almost as soon as it starts.

Not because of the pandemic, though that threat will loom over the entire league all fall. No, in this case, it’s because of the schedule, which kicks off Sunday at Ford Field, where the Lions will host the Chicago Bears with piped-in crowd noise but no fans in attendance. And if that’s not a must-win game, well, the next one — at Lambeau Field against the Packers — certainly might feel like one.

For the first time in 15 years, the Lions will start the regular season with consecutive games against divisional foes. And while the Lions’ head coach, Matt Patricia, insists he has tunnel vision right now — “I just approach every single day the same, trying to win every day,” he says — he’s certainly not blind to what Sunday’s game, as well as the one after that, means in the bigger picture.

“Obviously, it doesn’t change anything: We have the same goal every single week we play,” Patricia said Friday. “But I do think we understand that the division — back-to-back, out of the gate — is really important for us.”

Path to playoffs

How important? Recent history suggests it’s critical, particularly if you believe the job security of the Lions’ head coach — and of his boss, general manager Bob Quinn — is tied to this team making the playoffs, as ownership suggested last December.

Consider that in nine of the last 10 years, the NFC North champion has gone 5-1 or better within the division. The lone exception came in 2013, when the Lions seized control of the division with a mid-November win at Soldier Field and then promptly lost six of their final seven games to miss the playoffs, ending Jim Schwartz’s tenure as head coach. The Packers won the NFC North that year at 8-7-1 (3-2-1 in the division) after Aaron Rodgers, whose midseason injury (broken collarbone) had given Detroit that window of opportunity, returned to lead a comeback win over the Bears in Week 17.

“They’ve always been important,” said Rodgers, whose team is one of a half-dozen others in the NFL staring at consecutive division games (at Minnesota, vs. Detroit) to start the season. “The best way to ensure a playoff spot is to dominate your division.

“We’ve won the division six times in my 12 years (as a starter) — we’ve won it with as few as eight wins and as many as 15. We won the Super Bowl without winning the division, and we’ve made the playoffs without winning the division as well.  But it is definitely the easiest way to secure a home playoff spot. It has always been very important.”

Patricia understands that as well as anyone, having spent his first 14 NFL seasons on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England. The Patriots won the AFC East in all but one of those years — they lost a tiebreaker to Miami in 2008, the year Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL in the season opener — and Patricia has already lost as many divisional games in his first two years in Detroit (10) as he did in his last eight in Foxborough.

The Lions, of course, have never won the NFC North. They haven’t won their division since 1993, back when it was still the NFC Central.

Since then, Green Bay has won the division title 13 times, Minnesota seven and Chicago five. Heck, even Tampa Bay has won it once, and the Buccaneers haven’t been in the division since 2001, when the Lions still played at the Silverdome.

The Lions have made the playoffs as a wild-card entry, and they did so twice despite finishing .500 in the division in both 2011 and 2016. They also missed the postseason in 2017 despite going 5-1 in the North that year (the lone loss came at home to the Vikings on Thanksgiving Day).

‘Got to stay on track’

But Rodgers’ point still stands: The best path to the playoffs winds its way through familiar territory. And on that count, it may help that Patricia and his staff won’t have to check the map as much this season.

Now in his third year, Patricia knows his way around these parts considerably better than he did a couple years ago, especially since the NFC North has remained relatively static during that time. There are no new head coaches in the division this year, the same four starting quarterbacks, and just one new offensive coordinator in the Bears’ Bill Lazor, though it’ll still be head coach Matt Nagy calling the plays Sunday at Ford Field.

“I was actually just thinking about this a couple days ago,” Patricia said. “It does feel a little bit more natural, kind of like this is the division we’ve played for a couple years now and the moving parts haven’t been as great. It’s certainly, for me — just me individually — a lot more comfortable than what it was maybe my first year and even into last year.

“So, I would say absolutely. As you progress through a couple years of being in a certain spot in a certain division, you start to get familiarity with the players and the coaches. Not that you didn’t know who they were, but maybe the intricacies or the details of that are maybe a little bit more natural.”

And, naturally, the other coaches in this division certainly are more familiar with the Lions’ plans and personnel as well, though a revamped defensive roster in Detroit — and a new coordinator in Cory Undlin — should add some new wrinkles for opponents, at least initially.

Still, the bottom line remains the same in a division that appears to be up for grabs this season, with no clear-cut favorite coming in.

“I would say, really, what it does is make sure that your focus and the preparation for those things are laser-locked in,” Patricia said. “Can’t have any miscues. We’ve got to stay the course, we’ve got to stay on track.”

And this year, they’d better not waste any time getting out of the blocks. Because this year, the race could be over before you know it.

Kings of the North

Here are the last 10 NFC North champions, with division record in parentheses:

2010: Chicago (5-1)

2011: Green Bay (6-0)

2012: Green Bay (5-1)

2013: Green Bay (3-2-1)

2014: Green Bay (5-1)

2015: Minnesota (5-1)

2016: Green Bay (5-1)

2017: Minnesota (5-1)

2018: Chicago (5-1)

2019: Green Bay (6-0)

Meanwhile, in Detroit …

How the Lions have fared the last 10 seasons, with division record in parentheses (*made playoffs):

2010: Lions (2-4) 6-10 

2011: Lions (3-3) 11-5*

2012: Lions (0-6) 4-12   

2013: Lions (4-2) 7-9

2014: Lions (5-1) 11-5*

2015: Lions (3-3) 7-9

2016: Lions (3-3) 9-7*

2017: Lions (5-1) 9-7

2018: Lions (2-4) 6-10

2019: Lions (0-6) 3-12-1

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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