Ranking the Lions’ best chance for a win in remaining schedule

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions know they have more than half their 17-game season remaining, but after getting smashed by the Philadelphia Eagles ahead of the bye, the whispers of a potentially winless campaign started to gain momentum.

But while the Lions were off, we were reminded how unpredictable the league could be when the Jacksonville Jaguars upended the Buffalo Bills as a double-digit underdog, securing their first win on American soil in 420 days.

That’s enough to prove there’s hope for the Lions. So with that in mind, we’ve ranked their best chance to get a victory, from worst to best:

9. Vs. Arizona, Dec. 19

Even without their star quarterback and All-Pro wide receiver, the Cardinals went on the road and handily beat division rival San Francisco on Sunday, 31-17, improving to 5-0 on the road for the year.

The NFL’s only eight-win team, the Cardinals have one of the league’s deepest and most-balanced rosters. They’re averaging more than 30 points per game, behind the dual-threat abilities of MVP candidate Kyler Murray and a two-headed backfield of James Connor and Chase Edmunds. Only the Browns have scored more touchdowns on the ground in 2021.

More: Justin Rogers’ 2021 Detroit Lions midseason grades

Defensively, they’re holding opponents to 17.2 points per contest. They’re particularly tough against the pass, marrying a rush that’s generated 25 sacks and a back end that’s nabbed seven interceptions.

8. At Cleveland, Nov. 21

In a league dominated by passing, the Browns are one of the few teams successful with a run-pass balance closer to 50/50. Led by Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, Cleveland sits atop the NFL, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, with only the Cardinals and Titans running the ball more frequently. That takes pressure off quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is 25th in pass attempts, but adequately efficient, with a passer rating hovering around 100.

Defensively, the Browns have been hit and miss this season, but they’re in the midst of a solid stretch, limiting their past three opponents to 15 points per game. Where they excel is against the run, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry. That’s problematic for the Lions, who have built their offense around the ground game. If they can’t move the ball with Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift, they’ll have to lean on quarterback Jared Goff to carry the team. That’s something he hasn’t proven capable of doing in Detroit.

Additionally, the Browns defend the tight end position well, limiting the position to fewer than 40 receiving yards per game, further complicating Detroit’s chances to pull off the upset on the road.

7. At Seattle, Jan. 2

The last time the Lions beat Seattle on the road was the 1999 season opener, when the Seahawks were still playing in a dome. They’re winless in four attempts at Lumen Field, and conditions don’t figure to be pleasant in early January.

That said, this year’s Seahawks team has looked more beatable than usual, even prior to Russell Wilson suffering a finger injury that knocked him from the lineup the past three weeks. When healthy, he unquestionably remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league and he’s on the verge of returning to action. Having never previously missed a game due to injury in his career, there’s little reason to believe he won’t be under center against the Lions.

The Seahawks are an interesting team defensively. They’re allowing a ton of yards — only the Jets are surrendering more — but few points. It helps that the offense turns the ball over less than anyone and they’ve been tough in the red zone, allowing opponents to cross the goal line fewer than 50% of their trips inside the 20. The Lions, meanwhile, rank 30th in red-zone offense.

6. At Denver, Dec. 12

The Broncos have been a tough team to figure out this season. They beat up on a trio of cupcakes to start the year, then proceeded to drop four straight against tougher competition. They climbed back to .500 against another subpar opponent in Washington, only finally bucking expectations this week when they ran over Dallas, 30-16, on the road.

Led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — who could have been a Lion had the team opted to send Matthew Stafford to Carolina — is completing better than 70% of his throws, with a career-high 101.2 passer rating. The team also has a solid ground game, averaging 4.5 yards per carry with the tandem of Melvin Gordon and dynamic rookie Javonte Williams.

Their offensive weakness has been red-zone efficiency, which is just over 55% on the year, but they’ve been turning a corner in recent weeks, scoring touchdowns six of seven trips the past three games.

Defensively, they’re holding opponents to 17 points per game, second only to Buffalo. Some of that has to do with playing the Jets, Jaguars and a Chubb-less Browns, but credit to a back end allowing just 57% of passes to be completed against them, with an 11-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

5. Vs. Green Bay, Jan. 9

With Aaron Rodgers sidelined by COVID, the Packers dropped their second game of the season on Sunday, but still hold a sizeable lead in the NFC North . The big question becomes whether the team’s playoff positioning will be secure before the Week 17 matchup with the Lions. If that’s the case, starters, including Rodgers, could be rested in the name of preserving health.

Of course, no one needs a reminder that a lack of starters doesn’t guarantee anything. Everyone in this town remembers Packers backup QB Matt Flynn torching a Lions team that was still playing for something a decade ago.

But without Rodgers, this game rockets to the top of the list. Jordan Love looked pedestrian in his debut. Now imagine if he didn’t have Davante Adams or Aaron Jones to lean on.

4. At Pittsburgh, Nov. 14

This is one of the least intimidating offenses on the remaining schedule. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on his last legs, averaging 6.6 yards per pass, while tossing four interceptions and fumbling four times. And he doesn’t have the traditional Pittsburgh ground game to carry him and the offense. Rookie Najee Harris is a workhorse, but he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.

Defensively, Pittsburgh can still punch you in the mouth with their physicality. On a down-to-down basis, they’re among the toughest teams to run against, and they’re just good enough against the pass to keep the Steelers in the game most weeks. Just don’t expect many turnovers. They ranked near the bottom of the league heading into a Monday night matchup with the Bears.

Again, if Detroit can take care of the football, they should have a shot in this one. Then again, they haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 1955, dropping nine straight.

3. Vs. Minnesota, Dec. 5

The Lions came oh so close to knocking off the Vikings in Minnesota earlier this season, but were sunk by a 54-yard field goal as time expired.

It was a strange game, because the Vikings were in control late in the fourth quarter before unexpectedly missing a field goal and coughing up a fumble deep in their own territory that opened the door for the Lions to take a late lead. And Detroit blew it’s fair share of opportunities early in the contest, turning it over twice while in field-goal range.

Another factor to consider is the Vikings were missing Dalvin Cook that week. In six games, he’s racked up more than 600 yards from scrimmage and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. That offense still runs through him.

But if Detroit can repeat their defensive performance against a potent offense that’s put up 30 or more points four times this season, plus eliminate those costly turnovers, they’ll have a shot to get some revenge.

2. At Atlanta, Dec. 26

In Arthur Smith’s first year at the helm, he has the Falcons sitting at .500 through eight games. But that record is a little deceptive, given the quality of those victories. The wins, by a combined 14 points, have come against the Giants, Jaguars, Jets and Saints, with the latter starting Trevor Siemian at quarterback.

Offensively, the Falcons can be potent. Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is quickly blossoming into a matchup nightmare, while Smith has unlocked the potential of Cordarrelle Patterson by committing to using him primarily out of the backfield. The long lethal return man is pacing the team with 737 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, they remain one of the league’s least-efficient units, despite one of the easiest schedule. They’re last in the NFL in sacks, 29th on third down and bottom-10 in passer rating and yards per carry against.

The Lions should be able to move the ball in this post-Christmas meeting, but to net a victory, they’ll have to capitalize on red zone opportunities.

1. Vs. Chicago, Nov. 25

Execution errors and overaggressive coaching cost the Lions a chance to beat the Bears earlier this season. The defining stat from the contest remains Detroit coming away with just seven points on five trips inside the Chicago’s 10-yard line.

The four failures were a pair of lost fumbles, including a botched snap, and two turnovers on downs, after the Lions inexplicably went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 5.

Defensively, the Bears picked on cornerback Bobby Price, who was responsible for almost all of rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ 209 passing yards in his debut. The Lions have since made a switch to undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs, who despite his inexperience, has been a more reliable outside option.

With a rookie quarterback still prone to mistakes, an overrated defense and having the benefit of a full house on Thanksgiving, this is, without question, Detroit’s best chance to get a win.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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