MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: NFC stats comparison

Posted Feb 6, 2017

This week’s Monday Countdown is a statistical look at how the Lions compare in five key categories to the other five teams that made the NFC playoffs in 2016.

One of the most popular exercises on the morning after any Super Bowl is to get the odds for each of the NFL’s 32 teams to win next year’s Super Bowl.

It’s a fun exercise, but in most NFL cities -- the New England Patriots being a prime exception (they were 6-1 to win Super Bowl LII in a line posted well before they met the Falcons in Super Bowl LI Sunday night) – it’s putting the ultimate goal a couple steps ahead of the process.

For franchises like the Detroit Lions, the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, but the reality of their progression to get there is how they stack up against teams in their own division and their conference.

As general manager Bob Quinn said in his wrap-up press conference after the Seahawks eliminated the Lions from the playoffs in the NFC Wild Card round: “... the quickest way to the playoffs is win your division.”

In other words, build a team that’s good enough to win the division and the conference to achieve the ultimate goal -- get to the Super Bowl.

The Lions made the playoffs in 2016 as a Wild Card when they lost to the Packers in a final-game showdown for first place in the NFC North. They were eliminated in the first round by Seattle.

This week’s Monday Countdown is a statistical look at how the Lions compare in five key categories to the other five teams that made the NFC playoffs in 2016.

This is not a team-by-team personnel evaluation or anything resembling a scouting report, although some conclusions are obvious.

One of those conclusions is that through their resilience and ability to rally in the fourth quarter, the sum of the Lions’ 9-7 record was in many cases better than the individual parts. The Lions overcame a lot, some of it self-inflicted, to make the playoffs.

Here are the stats comparisons:

1. Run game, offense: Given that the Lions ranked 30th overall with a running game that’s been a weakness for more than a decade, it’s no surprise that they’re last among in the NFC playoff field.

Rankings, yards per game: 1. Cowboys, 149.9; 2. Falcons, 120.5; 3. Packers, 106.3;  4. Seahawks, 99.4; 5. Giants, 88.2; 6. Lions, 81.9.

Bottom line: The run game would have been better if Ameer Abdullah hadn’t gone down for the season with a foot injury in the second game, and if Theo Riddick hadn’t missed six games, including the last three and the playoff loss with a wrist injury.

Even with those two back in 2017, adding a back to at least split the running load with Abdullah should be one of the priority items for the offseason.

As the Falcons showed, it’s not necessary to have one back carry the load. Devonta Freeman (1,079 yards) and Tevin Coleman (520 in 13 games without a start) combined to give the Falcons a running threat no matter who was in the game.

2. Sacks, defense: It was the most disappointing part of the defense, with a decline from 43 sacks in 2015 – tied for seventh most in the league – to 26. Only the Raiders, with 25, had fewer.

Sack rankings: 1. Seahawks, 42; 2. Packers, 40; 3. Cowboys, 36; 4. Giants, 35; 5. Falcons, 34; 6. Lions, 26.

Bottom line: Ziggy Ansah had 14.5 sacks in 2015, but an ankle injury that he sustained on the first defensive series of Game 2 took away one of the league’s premier pass rushers. Ansah had only two sacks. Kerry Hyder picked up some of the slack with a team-high eight sacks, but he had only one in the last seven games.

Sacks and pressure cause turnovers, missed throws and interceptions. Adding a pass rusher is another priority item.

3. Turnover ratio: The odds weigh heavily in favor of the team that wins the turnover margin winning the game. The Giants were the only NFC playoff team with a lower turnover ratio than Detroit’s. It’s not a coincidence that the two NFC playoff teams with the highest turnover ratios met in the conference championship.

Turnover margin rankings: 1. Falcons, plus 11; 2. Packers, plus 8; 3. Cowboys, plus 5; 4. Seahawks, plus 1; 5. Lions, minus 1; 6. Giants, minus 2.

Bottom line: The Lions continued to do a good job of protecting the ball. They had only 14 giveaways, tying the Cowboys for fifth in the league. On the flip side, they had only 15 takeaways – and none in the last four regular-season games or the playoffs.

4. Dropped passes: One of the most puzzling, and disappointing, developments on offense. Based on calculations by the website Sporting Charts, the Lions in 2015 had 17 dropped passes and a drop percentage of 2.7 percent. In 2016, they had 28 drops and a 4.8 percentage.

Total drops and percentage: From fewest to most -- 1. Cowboys, 8, 1.7;  2. Falcons, 11, 2.1; 3. Packers, 15, 2.4;  4. Seahawks, 15, 2.7; Giants, 22, 3.7; Lions, 27, 4.8 percent.

Bottom line: Having the most drops and highest percentage of any NFC playoff team indicates an obvious problem, and one that could not have been foreseen to such a degree.

Six drops by Marvin Jones Jr. and four by Golden Tate were an aberration based on their career history. Jones had only six in three active seasons combined with Cincinnati. Tate had more than two in a season only once before 2016.

However, drops continue to be a negative issue with Eric Ebron, a talented tight end with an ability to make big plays. Seven drops in 2016 were his career high after five in 2015 and four in 2014, all with fewer targets in 2016.

Timing is a critical element in evaluating the impact of dropped passes. A dropped pass on first down is the same as a run for no gain. It’s second and 10, with two chances to gain a first down. A drop on third-down is another matter. It means punting, and in the playoff loss to Seattle the Lions punted after drops on third down by Tate and Ebron respectively on the first two possessions. The Lions wound up with four drops for the game.

5. Home field, division records: The Lions have been generally good overall in both in Jim Caldwell’s three seasons as head coach. At home they’ve been 7-1, 4-4 and 6-2 from 2014-16. They have not done as well in division games: 5-1 in 2014 and 3-3 the last two years.

Home-field record rankings, 2016: 1. Cowboys, 7-1, Giants, 7-1 and Seahawks, 7-1; 4. Packers, 6-2 and Lions, 6-2, 6. Falcons, 5-3.

Division record rankings, 2016: 1. Packers, 5-1 and Falcons, 5-1; 3. Giants, 4-2; 4. Seahawks, 3-2-1; 5. Lions, 3-3 and Cowboys, 3-3.

Bottom line: The only thing that matters for the Lions is that they were at home against the Packers in the final game and couldn’t take advantage of it. On a Sunday night, in the last regular-season game on the schedule, the division was theirs for the taking. Instead, the Packers went home with another North title.