The Detroit Lions are positioned to win the NFC North for the first time in 23 years; before it was the NFC North. The last time the Lions won their own division, it was called the NFC Central and had a fifth team – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I was born a year later.
The stars have certainly aligned this season with the Lions in first place and their three remaining divisional games to be played at Ford Field. Green Bay looks like a slow motion train wreck. Led by a quarterback once thought to be indubitable, Aaron Rodgers seems to have lost his team. Minnesota has suffered more devastating injuries than any contender could hope to play through and their perfect start has long been forgotten in the midst of four straight losses. And Chicago? They’re closer to the 2008 Lions than they are a division title.
While their competitors are coming unhinged, Detroit’s arrow is pointing up. The Lions are getting healthier on defense and expect the return of DeAndre Levy for the homestretch. The offensive line is no longer the worst unit in football and Matthew Stafford is playing at an MVP level. Strictly from a football sense, the Lions should be the clear favorite to take the division and even Vegas has them as co-favorites.
Winning the division would mean hosting a playoff game for the first time in those 23 years. Ford Field, of course, has never seen a Lions playoff game. Even better, Detroit would likely be favored to win their first playoff game in a quarter of a century. The table has been set so why can’t I enjoy the feast to the fullest?
Because the Lions aren’t that good.
Detroit is in this position despite a defense that ranks between 31st and 32nd in every relevant per drive measure. They have been quite literally incapable of performing at a remotely acceptable level on the most important side of the ball. The offense is all Stafford, all the time without even a sprinkling of an adequate ground game. Never known for his fleet feet, Stafford is the Lions second leading rusher. They’ve trailed in the fourth quarter of every game this season and have a negative point differential despite having a winning record. Without elite quarterback play, the Lions could be winless. They certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the playoff race.
But they are.
And as a fan, this should be a time of unbridled happiness and optimism. With each thrilling comeback on the arm of Stafford, it is, at least in the moment. My heart and my head just happen to be on conflicting wavelengths. My heart unabashedly hangs on every second of Lions football, yearning for victories no matter the cost. There’s been very little winning in my lifetime, especially in meaningful games and this season just feels different. But winning does have a price and though my heart doesn’t care, my mind struggles to cope with the realities this season may bring.
The Lions can win the NFC North and even their first playoff game since Bill Clinton was in office, but it wouldn’t suddenly mean they’re a good team. In reality, the NFL doesn’t have many good teams this year. There is plenty of mediocre. Plenty of any given Sunday. Not much great. Detroit doesn’t have great coaching, great teamwork, or a grand identity that they can build upon in the coming years. The closest thing to a system we have is, leave it up to Stafford and pray. That’s been enough to stumble through trash heap after trash heap and come out with a little something but don’t mistake it for something it’s not. The Lions are no closer to a Super Bowl than they have been at any point these last 23 years.
And that’s where my mind can’t enjoy this season the way my heart can. As Lions fans, we’re so conditioned to failure that any modicum of success breeds happiness and celebration. I yearn to join in but with an eye on the future, I can’t bring myself to just enjoy the ride because I see the loose, rusty bolts that piece this rickety track together. Winning keeps the ride running but it doesn’t make it any safer.
If Bob Quinn didn’t make a coaching change after last season, he certainly isn’t going to after a playoff season. He doesn’t have the spine even if he wanted to make that change. So here’s to a Jim Caldwell extension, just let me find my barf bag. Here’s to paying Stafford close to 25 million and then extending Ezekiel Ansah to ensure we don’t have enough cap space to build a team around them. Here’s to continued mediocrity.
This is what winning means this season. Navigating through a downtrodden NFL only serves to prevent the Lions from making the necessary changes to become a real contender. It maintains the status quo and little else. It doesn’t make the Lions better. But the rest of the NFL? They will get better.
And that scares me enough to suck much of the enjoyment out of the ride. A pragmatist understands that Detroit has close to zero chance at hoisting the Lombardi in February. As wins pile up, hope is inflated but that reality remains unchanged. The Lions can stumble through the muck but if they came face to face with a team like Tom Brady’s Patriots in an elimination game? Don’t let your children watch because that horror flick is definitely rated R.
I will always root for the Lions because our fandom comes from the heart and mine will always bleed that Honolulu Blue. Fandom is not confined by rationality; it’s an emotional journey. It just tears me up inside because deep down I know rooting for this team now is essentially rooting against the future.
I am not on an island. Many fans are experiencing the same season-long rollercoaster of emotions and not just from the constant up and down of thrilling comeback attempts every week. We want so badly to experience the successes that have long alluded this franchise but it’s hard to coalesce this year’s mild success with getting closer to a Super Bowl in the future. Winning in spite of their many faults only pushes the Lions further from solutions.
How can we truly enjoy another season without a Super Bowl at the cost of hamstringing the franchise’s future?