Eli Manning held the Lombardi trophy last season, will it be Matthew Stafford in 2013? (courtesy of USAToday)

It’s been a huge surprise for me to see so many NFL writers picking the Detroit Lions to take a step back this season.  After coming off a 10-6 season and the first playoff appearance in over a decade, I believe the Lions are not only going to improve–but contend for a spot in this year’s Super Bowl.

Here are a few of the reasons some analysts think the Lions won’t make the playoffs this season.

  1. The division is better.  Although I believe Chicago has improved themselves on offense with the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Michael Bush, their defense is another year older.  Linebacker Brian Urlacher underwent his second surgery this off-season and may not be available to start the season.  Questions still remain on their offensive line.  Green Bay is still Green Bay.  They have one of the best offenses that will only get more balanced with the addition of RB Cedric Benson.  The offensive line should see some improvements but the defense can still be scored on.  The Packers are still the favorites, but the Lions aren’t that far behind.  Minnesota won’t be a factor until they find stability at the quarterback position.
  2. The Lions didn’t address their secondary or running back positions.  I was disappointed like many fans that corner back  and running back wasn’t addressed earlier in this year’s draft.  But the team went 10-6 last season with questions at these spots.  The Lions will most certainly have to add another RB before the start of the season with Jahvid Best likely starting the season on the PUP list and Mikel Leshoure suspended for the first two games.  With one of the best air attacks and possibly the deepest defensive line in all of football, the Lions will be able to mask some of their deficiencies.  CB Bill Bentley will get a chance to win the starting job as a rookie and prove that Martin Mayhew was wise to wait on corner in the draft.
  3. The Lions lack the discipline to be among the league’s elite.  This is probably the most overblown storyline of this off-season.  Sure, a few players made multiple stupid decisions.  But the players who…ahem…messed up, weren’t the leaders of this team.  A back-up corner, a running back who hasn’t taken a snap, and a defensive lineman who was used sparingly last season were the players who made off the field mistakes–not the core.  These mistakes shouldn’t affect the overall product on the field.  What did have an affect last season were the undisciplined defensive penalties that extended drives.  The core of this team is a year older and a year wiser.  I expect them to use last season as a learning experience and cut down on the bad penalties that plagued the Lions last year.

(courtesy of MLive)

The main factor that makes the Lions true Super Bowl contenders is that they possess the best quarterback-wide receiver combo in the NFL.  There’s no doubt that Calvin Johnson is the best WR in all of football.  But where does Matthew Stafford fit in among the NFL’s best QB’s?  Well, although he can’t be considered in the elite group that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers quite yet, if he has another 5,000 yard season (which isn’t out of the question) he’ll have to be included.  Stafford has more developed weapons this season.  Titus Young is set to have a breakout season.  Brandon Pettigrew is in the top 10 of pass catching tight ends in the league.  Nate Burleson and rookie Ryan Broyles fill out a loaded receiving corps.  In this era of areal football, the Lions are among the league’s best.

The defense has added depth in the front seven.  Although the secondary still has holes, the defensive line is deep and rookie linebackers will give the team more depth than they’ve had in years.  Although the safety and corner positions still have questions, the defense should be improved overall.

Although many Lions fans would beg to differ, the Lions do have the best offensive line in the NFC North.  With the addition of Riley Reiff, the Lions are now younger and have more flexibility and depth.  Reiff looks as though he may win a starting spot on the right side, but has been getting time on the left side as well due to injuries to Jeff Backus.  Pass protection will still be the main strength of this unit, but Reiff may give the running game a boost with his physical style of play.

With head coach Jim Schwartz entering his fourth year, the team has continuity in all facets of the game.  The offensive and defensive schemes aren’t changing, which allows the team to perfect what they already know and understand.  The NFC North looks as if it will be the best division in football, with three teams who think they can make it to New Orleans.  For the first time since Barry Sanders retired, you can legitimately say the Lions are Super Bowl contenders and not sound insane.
-Sam Plymale