NFL Power Rankings: Can we finally trust the Detroit Lions as contenders?

Shutdown Corner

Cleveland won a pro sports championship and the Chicago Cubs broke a 108-year World Series championship drought this year. Weird things are happening. Maybe we shouldn’t dismiss the Detroit Lions just yet.

Let’s run down the Lions’ history again. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season. That was their only playoff win since 1957. Detroit has never made the Super Bowl. The other three teams to not make the Super Bowl are the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Browns’ first NFL season was 1950 (or 1999, for the current iteration), Jacksonville was an expansion team in 1995 and the Texans’ first season was 2002. The Lions have been plugging away since 1930 – a 65-year head start on the Jags and 72 years on the Texans  – when they were the Portsmouth Spartans. And they still haven’t figured it out.

This is why the Lions are never mentioned as Super Bowl contenders.

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There’s also the way the Lions have reached 8-4 this season. Through 11 games this season they did not have one dominant win. In six of their wins, they trailed or were tied with 90 seconds left in regulation. In another win, they trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in the fourth quarter before rallying. Read that sentence again.

Football Outsiders had the Lions, who were in control of the NFC North coming into Week 13, as the NFL’s 25th ranked team in their DVOA per-play metric before Week 13. The defense hadn’t shown much, and the Lions have no running game to speak of. Their success has been built off Matthew Stafford playing well and winning a ton of close games. That has vaulted them into first place, and it has been a fun season for the Lions, but that isn’t the foundation of a championship contender.

Then on Sunday, the Lions looked like a different team. They blew away an opponent for the first time all season. They beat the Saints 28-13 in a game that was never in doubt. The Lions’ defense, which has been average at best all season, was fantastic. They forced Drew Brees into three interceptions and the Saints scored only one touchdown at home, where they usually score at will.

It’s hard to believe that the Lions transformed into a new team based on one good game. But teams have reinvented themselves late in the season and won it all. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts suddenly became a competent run defense without any warning. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were average at best in the passing game during the regular season, then Joe Flacco had one of the best postseasons ever. The 2011 New York Giants were mediocre in just about every single way until the playoffs, when they suddenly got hot and won four games.

So it can happen. Strange things happen in single-elimination playoffs. It’s still hard to believe that the Lions are a legitimate contender, however, if they’re not then who is?  Even the few teams considered Super Bowl contenders (is that list just five deep? Six, maybe?) are flawed. It’s the perfect year for a team to come out of nowhere and steal a championship.

I don’t believe it will happen for the Lions. There’s still a chance they blow a two-game lead in the NFC North to the Packers. But I wasn’t buying the 2011 Giants winning a Super Bowl either.

Maybe the Lions can make a magical run. After all, it’s the year for long sports droughts ending.

Matthew Stafford has led the Lions to an 8-4 record. (AP)
Matthew Stafford has led the Lions to an 8-4 record. (AP)

Here are the power rankings after Week 13 of the NFL season:

32. Cleveland Browns (0-12, Last week: 32)
The Browns claimed former Cardinals first-round pick Jonathan Cooper off waivers in October and he’ll start for them at right guard on Sunday. It’s the kind of low-risk move that could pay off for the Browns. Cooper was the seventh overall pick of the 2013 draft for a reason.

31. San Francisco 49ers (1-11, LW: 31)
So much for the strides the team and Colin Kaepernick seemed to be making over the past few weeks.

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10, LW: 29)
Against a team that had just 10 first downs and punted 11 times, the Jaguars lost by 10 points at home. The Jaguars’ roster as a whole isn’t this bad, but it’s tough to overcome a bad coach-quarterback combination.

29. New York Jets (3-9, LW: 27)
The Jets were such a failure on Monday night, they couldn’t even name Bryce Petty the quarterback for the final four games without screwing it up. Despite coach Todd Bowles saying it was the team’s plan all along to start Petty in the final four games, nobody told Ryan Fitzpatrick until after that brutal loss. Be better, Jets.

28. Chicago Bears (3-9, LW: 30)
If one positive thing comes from this season, it’s that the Bears found a running back to build an offense around. Jordan Howard, with five 100-yard games in his last nine outings and a 4.9-yard average, was a steal in the fifth round.

27. Los Angeles Rams (4-8, LW: 28)
Kenny Britt will be an interesting free agent. Even though it seems like he has been around a long time, he turned just 28 in September. He has finally turned his physical skills into a productive, consistent season. He has 855 yards and five touchdowns on the worst offense in football. He also has an off-field history that teams can’t ignore. But he could end up being a nice piece for a team in need of a receiver.

26. Carolina Panthers (4-8, LW: 24)
It seems weird that Ron Rivera would bench his MVP quarterback for not having a tie on during a team flight. It’s not like he was dressed in an unprofessional or sloppy way. There has to be something more going on, right?

25. Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1, LW: 26)
Vontaze Burfict had 15 tackles (10 solo), two interceptions and four passes defended against the Eagles on Sunday. That’s why the Bengals put up with the other controversial stuff that gets so much attention.

24. Philadelphia Eagles (5-7, LW: 22)
Doug Pederson told the Philadelphia media that he didn’t think all of his players played hard in a blowout loss to the Bengals. It will be interesting to see if that leads to lineup changes. It’s very, very rare that a coach publicly questions the effort of his players.

23. Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1, LW: 25)
John Brown played 21 snaps on Sunday, with no targets his way. He has 19 yards on one catch the last three weeks. He has been dealing with sickle cell trait this season and that has robbed him of his effectiveness on the field. He’s just 26 and had 1,003 yards last season, so hopefully he and doctors can figure out a solution and he can go on with his career.

22. New Orleans Saints (5-7, LW: 18)
Being dismantled by the Lions seemed like the end of their season. Three of their last four games are on the road, and they probably have to win out to have any chance at the playoffs. This will probably be the fourth time in five seasons Drew Brees has not played in the postseason. He turns 38 in January.

21. San Diego Chargers (5-7, LW: 19)
There will be a race before the end of the season to get Antonio Gates three more touchdowns. He has 109, two behind Tony Gonzalez’s NFL record of 111 for tight ends. It would be fitting for Gates to set the record in San Diego, and who knows where the Chargers will play in 2017.

20. Houston Texans (6-6, LW: 21)
For all the problems the Texans have had this season, if they beat the Colts on Sunday they’ll be in a great spot to win the division. Then we’ll get the pleasure of watching them as huge underdogs at home in that Saturday afternoon slot on wild-card weekend.

19. Indianapolis Colts (6-6, LW: 23)
Years from now, someone will corner you and tell you the story of how Jack Doyle’s fumble inches before crossing the goal line cost Andrew Luck a touchdown and cost them a spot in their fantasy football playoffs.

18. Tennessee Titans (6-6, LW: 20)
Next two weeks: vs. Denver, at Kansas City. They need to win one of those because 6-8 would put them out of the playoff hunt, but this is the AFC South and you can lose pretty much as much as you want and not be out of the race.

17. Minnesota Vikings (6-6, LW: 14)
One thing that would help the Vikings over the rest of the season – other than turning around this miserable skid and somehow making the playoffs – would be to get first-round pick Laquon Treadwell a little confidence going into the offseason. He has one catch for 15 yards all season. The Vikings already traded their first-round pick next season, and it’s tough to get nothing out of the first round over a two-year stretch. It’s not too late for Treadwell though, even though he hasn’t shown anything yet.

16. Green Bay Packers (6-6, LW: 16)
The Packers are much more likely to ruin the Lions’ NFC North dreams than the Vikings. The Vikings have lost the tiebreaker and don’t have another head-to-head meeting. The Packers beat the Lions already and have another shot at them in Week 17. If they can gain one game on the Lions over the next three weeks, a Week 17 Packers-Lions game for the NFC North has “Sunday Night Football” written all over it. Whether the Packers close that gap remains to be seen.

15. Miami Dolphins (7-5, LW: 13)
A bad loss at the Ravens doesn’t invalidate everything the Dolphins did in their six-game winning streak. They beat some good teams. But anytime you lose 38-6 to a team that is about your equal on paper, it’s troubling.

14. Buffalo Bills (6-6, LW: 12)
You can’t blow a 15-point lead, even against a good Raiders team, if you’re fighting to make the playoffs. Now the focus is on Tyrod Taylor struggling a bit, and his future with the team. It’ll be an interesting decision, given his contract situation for 2017. Is Cardale Jones going to be ready by next year?

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5, LW: 17)
This Buccaneers’ story is getting interesting. The Falcons have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, but the Bucs are probably playing better lately. Even if the Buccaneers don’t make the playoffs this season, this winning streak will give them a lot of confidence going into 2017.

12. Baltimore Ravens (7-5, LW: 15)
That was an eye-opening win against Miami. If the Ravens can double down on that momentum next Monday night at the Patriots, then they should be viewed in a much different way.

11. Washington Redskins (6-5-1, LW: 8)
If you want a great, in-depth look at Kirk Cousins, Greg Cosell broke down his development in a way you won’t see elsewhere.

10. New York Giants (8-4, LW: 10)
Victor Cruz was not happy immediately after getting no targets in a loss to the Steelers, though he backtracked a bit on Monday. Cruz isn’t what he once was, but he’s probably right – it’s a little strange he was ignored completely on Sunday.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5, LW: 11)
The past three games the Steelers have given up 9, 7 and 14 points. And half of that 14 came from a meaningless Giants touchdown in the last minute on Sunday. The first two opponents in that stretch were the Browns and the Colts without Andrew Luck, but still, it’s a promising improvement from the defense.

8. Atlanta Falcons (7-5, LW: 6)
The Falcons have to feel like they’ve been down this road before. Last season they were 5-0 and missed the playoffs. This season they were 4-1 with some quality wins, yet with four games left they’re suddenly tied with a red-hot Buccaneers team for first place.

7. Detroit Lions (8-4, LW: 9)
The funny thing about the Lions taking a step forward without Calvin Johnson is the same thing happened after Barry Sanders retired. Sanders retired and the next season the Lions went from 5-11 to 8-8 and made the playoffs.

6. Denver Broncos (8-4, LW: 7)
The last time Justin Forsett was in a Gary Kubiak offense was 2014, and he had a career year. The Broncos picked up Forsett on Monday and maybe at age 31 he’s just finished, but it’s an interesting pickup. Especially since the Broncos’ run game has been bad without C.J. Anderson.

5. Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1, LW: 5)
I’m not sure there are 25 non-quarterbacks who are more valuable than safety Earl Thomas, who is out for the season. And that list might be much smaller than 25. It’s possible for the Seahawks to win a Super Bowl without Thomas, but it’s a lot harder without him.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-3, LW: 4)
Don’t discount Sunday’s impressive Chiefs win. Not only were the Chiefs traveling to face a good Atlanta team, a week after an emotionally draining overtime win (in altitude) at Denver, but it would have been understandable if they were looking ahead to Thursday’s massive AFC West showdown against the Raiders. Sunday’s win says a lot about the Chiefs.

3. Oakland Raiders (10-2, LW: 3)
What a game that will be on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium. If the Raiders win, they’ll be up two games in the AFC West with three to play. If they lose, the Chiefs take over first place because they’ll clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker. There haven’t been many Thursday night matchups through the years that have meant this much in the playoff race.

2. New England Patriots (10-2, LW: 2)
Here’s an amazing stat from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald: Since 2003, the Patriots have won 12 division titles in 13 seasons and every one of those division titles have been clinched before Week 17. All 12. Unless there’s a crazy turn of events this season, the Patriots will go into Week 17 yet again with the AFC East already clinched. Only four times in that run have the Patriots clinched the division title as late as Week 16. That’s unbelievable dominance.

1. Dallas Cowboys (11-1, LW: 1)
Dallas is about a field goal favorite at the Giants this week. Which means they’ll be favored in every remaining regular-season game (at Giants, vs. Buccaneers, vs. Lions, at Eagles). Are we going to get a 15-1 team for a second straight season?

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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