OAKLAND -- The Detroit Lions are on the cusp of clinching their first postseason berth since 1999, and the rest of the NFC should be concerned.
While the focus for most of the season has been on the Lions' defense, it is the presence of one of the NFL's most explosive offenses that could propel Detroit to a deep run in the playoffs. After witnessing first-hand the Lions' dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Oakland Raiders, here are a few reasons why the Lions' offense should be feared in January:
Matthew Stafford is special
To be a legitimate contender, you must have a big-time quarterback, and the Lions have a special player in Stafford.
The third-year pro is an exceptional passer and playmaker with unrivaled arm strength. He is capable of making all of the throws from the pocket, and he shows a willingness to utilize all areas of the field. Against the Raiders, Stafford displayed all of his skills by distributing the ball to seven different receivers -- five Lions finished with at least five receptions. He also tallied six completions of 20-plus yards on a variety of intermediate and deep throws.
Stafford's outstanding physical tools are complemented by an unflappable confidence that allows him to perform at his best in the clutch. Unlike some quarterbacks who are unable to shake poor throws or costly mistakes, Stafford routinely bounces back from negative plays with stellar performances in critical moments. His mental toughness was on display against the Raiders when he shook off a strip-sack that resulted in an Aaron Curry touchdown to lead the Lions to back-to-back scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
Following the turnover, Stafford connected on 10 of 19 passes for 149 yards with two scores to rally his team from a 13-point deficit in the game's final eight minutes. This marked the fourth time this season the Lions have overcome such a steep deficit, which suggests Stafford has the clutch gene inherent in special quarterbacks.
Lions' WR corps is problematic
Detroit's pass offense ranks fifth in passing yards and fourth in touchdowns, while posting the second-most receptions of 40-plus yards. Those numbers not only put the Lions in the same ballpark as the Packers and Saints, but also illustrate how dynamic Calvin Johnson and his supporting cast have been this season.
Johnson, in particular, has been outstanding as the Lions' designated No. 1 playmaker in the passing game. He has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in five seasons and has emerged as arguably the top receiver in the NFL.
At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, Johnson nearly is indefensible on the perimeter when facing isolated matchups. While his superior size and athleticism gives him an edge in jump-ball situations, it's his speed and route running ability that allow him to beat the various double team tactics he consistently faces. Against the Raiders, Johnson torched a variety of single- and double-coverage packages on the way to totaling 214 receiving yards on nine receptions. His clever stutter move on the critical 48-yard reception that led to the game-winning score showcased his ability to win against multiple defenders.
While Johnson certainly sets the table as the lead horse in the stable, it's the key contributions of Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler that allow the Lions offense to roll. Each player is capable of winning consistently against one-on-one coverage, and all of them have the ability to make plays on third down and in the red zone, which forces opponents to defend the entire field.
Burleson and Young are interchangeable playmakers with the ability to do damage from the slot or outside. Burleson shows exceptional savvy as a route runner, which allows him to win on vertical routes despite a lack of explosive speed. His 39-yard touchdown on a seam route was a testament to his awareness and route running. He settled in the open area between the nickel defender and safety and worked his way into the end zone on a crafty run after the catch. Young didn't produce any explosive plays against the Raiders but has four 40-plus yard receptions and four touchdowns on the season.
Pettigrew and Scheffler become prominent players in the game plan on third-down situations. Their size and athleticism allow them to be featured on "box out" plays over the middle of the field, which gives Stafford high-percentage options to turn to in the clutch.
Scott Linehan is a masterful schemer
The fact that the Lions offense continues to excel without a consistent running game is a testament to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's creativity. He has shown a willingness to utilize misdirection and deception to generate production on the ground, and his persistence with the running game provides enough balance to allow Stafford to throw comfortably from the pocket.
Linehan's creativity in the passing game was reflected in his ability to mask the Lions' favorite passing concepts by using multiple personnel groupings. Detroit showed a variety spread and empty formations with "11" (one RB, one TE, three WRs) and "12" (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) personnel on the field. By diversifying the alignments of his personnel, he was able to create easy pre-snap reads for Stafford, which repeatedly led to big plays.
In looking at Calvin Johnson's game-winning score, it was part of a consistent theme of utilizing empty formations inside the 10-yard line. The Lions utilized their "11" package with three players aligned on the left and Johnson positioned in the slot with running back Kevin Smith on the outside. On the right, the Lions ran a stick concept with both inside receivers running 5-yard option routes with a fade on the outside. To the left, Johnson runs a "hole" route over the top of the middle linebacker with Smith running a snag. This not only was designed to take advantage of the "cut" coverage favored by the Raiders in the red zone, but it was an expansion of the QB draw utilized on the fourth-down conversion on the previous drive.
Given the importance of adjusting on the fly, Linehan's creativity as a play caller could be a deciding factor in the postseason.
Their offense matches up well against NFC contenders
The road to the Super Bowl from a lower seed would appear difficult at first glance, but the fact that the NFC doesn't feature a stout defense makes it an easier task for the Lions. While the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons rank among the top 10 in total defense, a closer examination at the numbers reveals their pass defenses rank near the middle of the pack. The 49ers and Falcons rank 19th and 17th, respectively, against the pass, yet they rank as the best pass defenses among the NFC contenders.
The Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants rank near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed, and their inability to defend the pass could lead to the Lions raking up remarkable totals in a postseason shootout. Each of the aforementioned units has struggled mightily in the back end, and all of them could have issues matching up against Calvin Johnson and Co. in a must-win game.
Granted, the Lions sport a 1-4 record against the top seeds in the NFC -- Detroit defeated Dallas, but lost to New Orleans, Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta -- but playoff games routinely are decided by critical defensive plays and the jury still is out on whether the top teams have enough on the defensive side of the ball to win big games.
With the Lions capable of lighting up the scoreboard, the prospect of Detroit making a long run in January shouldn't be dismissed.