The last two weeks showed exactly why we waited so long to stick a fork in the 2012 Detroit Lions. (And why we probably waited too long.) In back-to-back weeks, they had Super Bowl contenders on the ropes. They outgained the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, and it felt like the Lions outplayed them both for most of the game. Yet Detroit lost both times.
What went wrong
Matthew Stafford is great one week and spraying passes the next. He's up and down from quarter to quarter. It's hard to rely on a franchise quarterback like that. Stafford's mechanics were wacky to begin the season, and the Lions' offense was one of the most inefficient in the league. Stafford is falling in love with the sidearm throw.
A perfect stat sums it up: The Lions are second in offensive yards but just 14th in points. They are great at playing from behind but can't hold on to leads because of their weak running game. The Lions move the ball well but turn it over too much. They are minus-7 in turnover margin, which is 26th in the NFL.
The injuries to running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best hamstrung this team, but it's not like Leshoure has solved the problems since returning. He's solid. The Lions need another running back to help him. Receiver depth should have been a strength, but Titus Young hasn't developed as hoped. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew forgot how to catch the ball.
We came into the season expecting the Lions' secondary to struggle, and that has been the case. FootballOutsiders' metrics have Detroit as the 28th-best defense. We did not expect Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch to take a step back. Avril has eight sacks but hasn't provided pressure as consistently. Vanden Bosch looks well past his prime.
The Lions haven't played complementary football. When the defense plays well, the offense falls short (i.e. the first game against the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears). When the offense plays well, the defense can't hang on, like on Thanksgiving. The special teams has been one of the worst in the league and has cost the Lions at least two games. Flip that around, and we're looking at 6-5 instead of 4-7.
What went right
Detroit's offensive line also has quietly done a solid job. Gosder Cherilus re-shaped his career. It's a little odd that first-round draft pick Reilly Reiff is used as a sixth offensive lineman/fullback, often at the expense of tight end Brandon Pettigrew's playing time. Calvin Johnson also remains Calvin Johnson despite a lack of touchdowns early in the season. Rookie Ryan Broyles shows great quickness and looks like a keeper. This receiver corps remains very dangerous.
What still matters
Stafford has taken a step back this season. It's easy to forget what a young quarterback he still is; his development over the final five weeks with new weapons like Leshoure and Broyles remains important.
What changes are coming?
The Lions aren't far away from being a playoff-caliber team. The larger question is if they truly can be a championship contender. They still have a young core of players that acts too young. It's a franchise that needs to grow up.