The Detroit Lions are in the playoffs. No need to pinch yourself. You’re not dreaming. Thanks to the superstar potential of the offense, a turnover inducing defense and a competent coaching staff, the 2011 Lions will return to the postseason for the first time this millennium.
Who they will play, however, is completely up in the air. In fact, the Lions have 4 possible opponents for the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend. All we know for certain is that they will be on the road at the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants. It would seem the most likely scenario is that the Lions will lose at Green Bay in the season finale on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons (battling Detroit for the 5th seeded playoff spot) will beat the inept Tampa Bay Bucs, the Saints will beat the Carolina Panthers and the 49ers will whoop the St. Louis Rams. That would leave the Lions with a rematch at the Superdome against the Saints…probably seen as the toughest of their four potential opponents.
However, nothing is a given in the NFL. The Packers have little to play for and we’ll likely see Matt Flynn taking snaps for the Packers on Sunday giving the immortal Aaron Rodgers a break. Additionally, the Packers may use Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson sparingly. On a normal trip to Lambeau Field the Lions would be enormous underdogs. However, so far Vegas is seeing the Lions as 3 point favorites to win on Sunday, given the likelihood of the Packers resting starters. It would seem the #5 seed is the Lions to lose and an immensely winnable first round matchup with the Cowboys or Giants would be looming. In fact, given the Giants suspect defense and poor running attack, the Lions might be favored to beat them on the road.
However, there is reason to hope that the Lions actually see the Saints next weekend. They have a prime opportunity to get the battered and bruised Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson some much needed rest. Those two players have been working overtime the last month for the Lions, literally carrying the team to their playoff berth. An injury to either, would devastate any chance at a playoff run. Instead, the Lions might be wise to consider resting Stafford and Johnson (as well as their rejuvenated, but banged-up running back Kevin Smith) much of the second half of Sunday’s game…regardless of the score. The Lions have a more than capable backup in Shawn Hill who nearly led the Lions to a win last season in Lambeau. Personally, I would take Hill any day over Matt Flynn in the battle of the backups. I still wouldn’t bet against the Lions to win even with their backups playing much of Sunday’s game.
If the Lions lose (and Falcons win), so what? The team has already exceeded expectations. 10 wins, a playoff berth, a winning road record, star talent on both sides of the ball and, most importantly, a franchise QB finally identified. A win against the Giants or Cowboys (while great for fan psyche) wouldn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the organization. However, a win at New Orleans would catch everyone’s attention. I know their early trip to New Orleans didn’t end well, but the Lions proved they could play with the Saints despite a million factors working against them. The Saints were in the midst of their late season roll and healthy, Ndamukong Suh was suspended, Chris Houston and Louis Delmas were out, Kevin Smith quickly re-injured his ankle, Matt Stafford was only in the beginning phase of healing from his broken finger, the Lions committed double digit penalties and the refs missed numerous Saint infractions. Despite all of the above, the Lions were driving with a chance to tie the game in the 4th quarter. Ask the Saints if they’d rather see the Lions or the Falcons in first round. I think you know their answer.
If the Lions are going to do anything in these playoffs, they’ll have to go through New Orleans sometime. Why not get it out of the way early?