The Detroit Lions sit at 6-4 atop the NFC North, but have found themselves in close games every time out. Is winning in that scenario sustainable?
With the Minnesota Vikings winning in Week 11, it was crucial that the Detroit Lions do the same against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That should’ve been an easy task considering the shortcomings of the Jags in 2016. However, the Lions held true to their form this season and found themselves in a close one. Eric Ebron scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard rush early in the fourth quarter. Matt Prater then pushed the lead to seven points late to secure the 26-19 victory.
The Lions move to 6-4 on the season and, with the win, maintain their lead in the NFC North. However, the seven-point margin of victory only adds to one of the strangest stats of the 2016 NFL season. All 10 of the Lions games, wins and losses alike, have been decided by single-digits. Every time out, Detroit finds themselves in a close matchup.
On one hand, it’s a positive sign for the Lions that every game is close. At the very least, that means they’re competitive and have a chance to win each time they take the field. However, it also appears to be quite a precarious position for a division-leader to find themselves in.
With all 10 games for the Lions this season being this close, Detroit has the second-worst point differential of any division leader at +6, per ESPN. Only the Houston Texans (-27) are currently worse and, well, what else would you expect from the AFC South? In fact, the Lions don’t even have the best point differential in the NFC North. That distinction belongs to Vikings (+29), who are tied with Detroit at 6-4, but the Lions own the tiebreaker.
Over the past five seasons, only five teams have had a point differential of under 10 points and been able to win their division, per ESPN. The most recent came just last season in the Washington Redskins, who emerged out of a weak NFC East at 9-7 with a +9 point differential. All of this together thus begs the question of if the Lions can actually win the division while playing each opponent this closely.
It’s certainly a tricky situation for a team to continuously put themselves in. A team that winds up in one-possesion games leaves themselves vulnerable to one mistake ultimately costing them the game. However, as winners of five of their last six games, Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense have come through time and again with clutch football late in games.
While Ebron may have scored a rare tight end rushing touchdown to give the Lions the lead against Jacksonville, Stafford’s command of the offense in the fourth quarter was phenomenal. He controlled the clock for the Lions throughout the fourth quarter to get them in position for that score and late field goal. In fact, Detroit held the ball for 11:18 in the final frame in Week 11 against the Jags. When your offense is in control enough to dominate time of possession like that late in games, the score being close isn’t much of an issue.
There’s no escaping the fact that the defense is the weak point of this Detroit Lions team. However, the offense has hit its stride so smoothly that they have been able to effectively take the defense out of the equation in the clutch. Rather, they’ve put the ball (and game) in the hands of Stafford and let him go to work.
That said, just how sustainable this type of success for the Lions is will be brought to light over their final six games of the regular season. Starting with their second meeting with the Vikings on Thanksgiving Day, Detroit also has matchups with the New Orleans Saints, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys remaining on their schedule.
Save for the Vikings, those are three offenses that can strike quick and take advantage of a poor defense. Subsequently, being in a close game late and controlling time of possession may not fully be an option for the Lions. Even if they held the ball for over 11 minutes in the fourth quarter against one of those teams, the opposing offenses have proven that they can answer with scores in four minutes.
Consequently, the answer to the query of if this is sustainable is two-fold. On one hand, the Lions offense has controlled the game well enough and produced in the clutch well enough to where they could keep winning in close games. Contrarily, though, their remaining schedule indicates that operating in that manner might cause them to falter down the stretch.
The Lions are a quality football team, despite a slow start and mild preseason expectations. However, they’re going to need to find ways to not put themselves in need of clutch fourth quarter play in their final six games of the regular season, playing a more consistent 60 minutes of football. If not, then they could wind up watching their chance at winning the division disappear.