By Sam McPherson
The Seattle Seahawks have won the NFC West Division three times in the last four seasons, but this 2016 playoff team is the weakest of them all, due to injuries on both sides of the ball. However, Seattle is still talented enough to have earned the No. 3 seed in the NFC postseason, and the reward for the 10-5-1 regular-season record is a home playoff game against the bottom conference seed. The Detroit Lions backed into the postseason despite losing their final three regular-season games and, like the Seahawks, the Lions have their own injury woes to overcome if they want to advance toward the Super Bowl.
Detroit was 9-4 with three games to play and a two-game lead over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North Division. Now, the Lions travel across the country to face a Seattle team that is still considered one of the most talented squads in the NFL.
Lions Season Record
Detroit finished 9-7 this year and the Lions were outscored overall by 12 points this season. They’re one of three NFL playoff teams this year to finish on the negative side of the point-differential ledger (along with Houston and Miami). Detroit lost its last three games, all to playoff teams, by a combined 39 points. That’s not the way a postseason team wants to enter the Super Bowl tournament. Overall, the Lions were 0-5 this year against teams in the playoffs, with losses to Dallas, Green Bay (twice), Houston and the New York Giants.
The best win for Detroit this year came against the Washington Redskins, a team that would have qualified for the postseason instead of the Lions if it had won its final game of the season at home against the Giants. Back in Week 7, Detroit beat Washington, 20-17, at Ford Field. Otherwise, the Lions’ nine wins came against several mediocre teams that didn’t come close to making the postseason. Detroit was not only outscored by its opponents this season, but it was also outscored by opponents who weren’t very good. Toss in the fact that eight of the wins came by seven points or less, and it’s clear that maybe the Lions are lucky to be here.
Lions On Offense
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was earning MVP whispers until he hurt his throwing hand in Week 14. This is one of the reasons Detroit has struggled in its last three games, especially on offense. The finger should be better by Saturday’s kickoff in Seattle, so the Seahawks cannot rely on Stafford’s recent performances for game preparation. Overall, the Lions QB demonstrated very good decision making in 2016, throwing just 10 interceptions to establish a career-best mark in that category. Stafford also led NFL QBs this season with eight fourth-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives. He can be dangerous.
Detroit’s lack of a running game has hurt the offense this year, however, as the injuries piled up in the offensive backfield. Second-year running back Zach Zenner has filled the void in the last two weeks, running for 136 yards and three touchdowns on just 32 carries combined in Week 16 and Week 17. If Zenner can manage to continue that pace, it will open up opportunities for Stafford to throw the ball to a trio of talented wide receivers (including former Seattle WR Golden Tate) and a good tight end. The loss of RB Theo Riddick to injury has hurt the Lions’ passing attack, however, and one of the WRs (Marvin Jones) may miss this game due to concussion issues suffered in Week 17.
Lions On Defense
Detroit finished 18th in total defense, based on yards allowed, and in the last three games the Lions have given up almost 144 yards per contest on the ground. Also, Detroit’s defense hasn’t forced a turnover since Week 13, going the final four games of the regular season without a takeaway. Overall, the Lions’ opponents out-gained them this year, which is right in line with the point-differential deficit. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead led the unit with 132 tackles, but the next six top tacklers on the team are all secondary players.
It’s a vulnerable front seven, basically, on this Detroit defense. Only defensive end Kerry Hyder (eight sacks) had more than 4.5 QB takedowns on this unit, and overall, the Lions totaled just 26 sacks for the season. Considering the opponent quality overall, that’s a low number. In only one Detroit victory did the defense keep the opponent more than a touchdown behind on the scoreboard (Week 13 in New Orleans).
Lions Players To Watch
Stafford’s throwing hand looked a lot better in Week 17 than in the prior two games, so don’t expect that to be an issue against the Seahawks. However, if Zenner is able to get some running room against the Seattle defense, that makes this game a tough proposition for the injured Seahawks secondary. If Seattle can limit Zenner with a minimal commitment, the secondary has a better chance to defend Stafford’s healthy arm.
Defensively, the Lions don’t have any Pro Bowlers on the roster, but running the ball away from Whitehead is a good start. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson may just have to evade Hyder on his own. He has the mobility to do so.
The Seahawks should win this game, but nothing has come easy to Seattle since winning Super Bowl XLVIII. Without Earl Thomas on defense and Tyler Lockett on offense, the Seahawks are diminished, greatly. But this is a proud team, and the core of this roster has never lost a playoff game at CenturyLink Field. It’s hard to imagine a team as weak as Detroit pulling off the feat on Saturday, so expect Seattle to win a grinding game by a double-digit margin. A 23-13 victory looks probable.