The Detroit Lions lost their final four games in 2013 to finish with a record of 7-9 which led to the dismissal of their head coach Jim Schwartz. Schwartz would be replaced as the Lions head coach by Jim Caldwell. In three seasons as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Caldwell’s record was 26-22. In his first season with the Colts, Caldwell guided the team to a Super Bowl appearance, but he bottomed out in 2011 when Indy went 2-14 without quarterback Peyton Manning who missed the entire year. Caldwell landed on his feet in 2012 when he was hired to be the quarterbacks coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Late in the 2012 National Football League season, the Ravens fired Cam Cameron as their offensive coordinator and promoted Caldwell. The move paid off for the Ravens as they would win their second Super Bowl Championship in franchise history. Caldwell wasn’t hired by the Lions to be an innovator, but he was brought to Detroit to instill some discipline.
Under Schwartz, the Lions were one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but they were also one of the most undisciplined teams on and off the football field. The past few seasons have seen the Lions become one of the most penalized teams in the NFL while some players on the team were finding themselves on the wrong side of the law too often. Prior to becoming the head coach of the Colts, Caldwell was an assistant coach under former NFL head coach Tony Dungy. Caldwell brings that same firm, but calm demeanor like Dungy and so far it is working for him with the Lions as he has brought character and perseverance to this team.
In Week 3, the Lions made their presence known as they knocked off the Green Bay Packers 19-7 and in the process they limited the potent Green Bay offense to just 223 yards. In consecutive weeks versus the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the Lions were trailing in the second half, but they were able to find a way to win on both occasions. In Week 7 against the Saints, the Lions scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of regulation to win 24-23. The following week versus the Falcons, the Lions rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit to win 22-21. After losing consecutive road games versus the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots respectively, the Lions were 7-4 and most people in the Motor City were waiting for another implosion from their team. But the Lions have gone out and taken care of their business in the past three games to beat the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Minnesota Vikings to boost their record this season to 10-4. With two games left in the regular season not only do the Lions appear to be a lock for the postseason, but they have a shot at their first division title since 1993 when they played in the NFC Central.
The Lions were without a healthy Calvin Johnson at wide receiver for the majority of the first half of the season as he was battling a knee injury. Thus the Lions turned to wide receiver Golden Tate to pick up the slack and he has done that. Tate has 91 receptions so far this season and he can become the first Lions wide receiver not named Calvin Johnson to have 100 receptions in a season since Herman Moore in 1997. Tate was signed by the Lions last off-season after helping the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl last season and he has also brought a toughness and swagger with him from the Pacific Northwest as well. Tate’s 1,224 receiving yards this season are also seventh best in the National Football League.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is only 26-years of age and he has 5,000-yard passing season under his belt, but Caldwell has gotten the gunslinger to be a better team player in 2014. Stafford was coming off of a season where he threw 19 interceptions and he only had a completion percentage of 58.5. But so far this season Stafford’s completion percentage is 61.5 and he has only thrown 10 picks while being error free in the Lions last three games. In the past Stafford has focused solely on Johnson in the passing game. But with Johnson limited earlier this season it made Stafford look for other receivers like Tate more which will only help the overall effectiveness of the Lions offense.
But the Lions butter is being breaded on the defensive side of the football. Led by menacing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Lions have the second best defense going in football. This season only four Lions opponents have scored more than 20 points as their defense in Detroit is reminding people of the days when Alex Karras, Dick Labeau, and Lem Barney made life tough for visitors that would venture to Tiger Stadium.
For the Lions and Caldwell it is simple. A road victory this Sunday over the Chicago Bears followed by another road victory the following Sunday versus the Packers will make the Lions the champs of the NFC North. A victory this Sunday by the Lions coupled with a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles will send Detroit to the postseason. The Lions defense will keep them in games and if their offense that is led by Stafford and Johnson can score consistently, Detroit could be finally ready to remove themselves from the shadows of the infamous “curse of Bobby Layne” and win their first NFL Championship since 1957. Not bad for a team in the Lions that have been labeled as underachievers and a head coach in Caldwell that has resurrected himself following his last forgettable season with the Colts. But that is how the pigskin bounces in the National Football League.