The Lions haven't won a division title since 1993 -- back when it was NFC Central and nine years before it was renamed the NFC North. Is this the year the drought ends? We project Detroit's exact division result on NFL odds. They open camp Aug. 2.
Recapping Lions' 2014 Season
Detroit came oh-so-close to finally ending that division drought last season. They went to Green Bay in Week 17 with the NFC North title up for grabs -- the loser would take a wild-card spot. Alas, the Lions simply never win in Wisconsin, as they haven't since 1991, and they lost 30-20. In some ways, Detroit should have won. The Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers to a calf injury for a bit late in the second quarter and when he hobbled back on the field in the third it was 14-14. The Lions held Rodgers to only 226 yards and two scores, Matthew Stafford threw for three scores and no picks, and Detroit had just one turnover to Green Bay's two. I think winning at Green Bay is almost in the Lions' heads at this point even with annual player turnover.
Still, it was a very successful season at 11-5 under first-year coach Jim Caldwell, who definitely wasn't the team's first choice to replace Jim Schwartz. The Lions got hosed a bit in the wild-card game at Dallas as two very controversial calls went against them in a 24-20 loss. Detroit still hasn't won a playoff game since 1991.
I did expect the Lions to have a Top-5 offense last season, but they were 19th in yards and 22nd in points (20.1 ppg). Stafford completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 4,257 yards, 22 touchdowns and 12 picks. Not his best season but not his worst. Calvin Johnson, for years the NFL's best receiver, is starting to break down a bit. He played 13 games last season and had 71 catches for 1,077 yards and eight scores. He wasn't even the best receiver on his team as new addition Golden Tate caught 99 catches for 1,331 yards and four scores. The running game was a problem as the Lions averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, their worst in more than a decade. Joique Bell was the primary back with Reggie Bush a change-of-pace and third-down guy.
The defense was outstanding under coordinator Teryl Austin. It ranked behind only Seattle in total yards and points allowed. Austin got a couple of head-coaching job interviews but is back and that's a win for Detroit.
Lions' Offseason Moves
USA Today recently handed out its offseason grades and gave the Lions a D-minus, the worst in the league along with San Francisco and Carolina. ESPN gave Detroit a B-minus. I'd put it somewhere in between. Obviously the biggest loss was probably the NFL's best defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh. How do you let a guy like that get away for nothing? The Detroit Lions could have slapped the franchise tag on him, although it would have been at a massive number of $26.8 million. That's obviously insane for any position other than a quarterback. Suh will count for more than $9.7 million in dead money toward the Lions' 2015 salary cap even though he's now with the Miami Dolphins. Detroit also let go fellow tackle Nick Fairley, who showed occasional signs of dominance but was often hurt or out of shape. The Lions were able to somewhat replace those two in trading for ex-Ravens Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata, but he's on the wrong side of his career.
Offensively, Bush is gone but his best days were well behind him. The team's 2015 second-round pick, Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, should back up Bell to start but it wouldn't shock me if Abdullah is the starter later in the season as long he fixes some fumble problems he had in college. Once again, this team is going to throw a lot.
Detroit's schedule ranks right in the middle as the 15th toughest in the NFL as its opponents were 135-121 last season for a winning percentage of .527. The team has one of the toughest opening five-game stretches in the NFL. The Lions open at San Diego as 2.5-point underdogs but at least they don't have to worry about Chargers star tight end Antonio Gates, who is suspended. Then it's at improving Minnesota in Week 2 before a Sunday night home game vs. Denver, a Monday night game at Seattle and then a home game against 2014 playoff team Arizona. The Lions could be better than last year yet start 1-4.
The schedule eases a bit in Week 6 as the Bears visit, followed by the Vikings. Detroit then goes to London in Week 8 to play the Kansas City Chiefs, a break in that it's not a trip to Arrowhead. The bye is in Week 9.
The Lions go back to Green Bay in Week 10 before a three-game homestand vs. Oakland, Philadelphia (Thanksgiving) and then the Packers. Detroit closes at St. Louis, on a Monday at New Orleans, home to San Francisco and at Chicago. So after the trip to Lambeau, the Lions won't play outdoors until the trip to the Windy City to close things out. That's an advantage for a team built for a dome.
NFL Free Picks: The Lions have a wins total of 8, with the 'over' a -140 favorite. They are +165 to make the playoffs and -205 NFL odds not to. Detroit's projected finish odds in the NFC North are first at +450, second at +162.5, third at +250 and fourth at +300. Go 'over' the wins as the Lions will finish second in the division again. I think another wild card spot is a good possibility.