What does the Lions’ 5-3 start mean?

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are a productive combination, but can they lead the Lions to the playoffs?

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are a productive combination, but can they lead the Lions to the playoffs?

How ‘bout dem Lions? That madcap, seesaw, improbable tussle with the Cowgirls was one for the ages. Records fell, spirits soared, and now the Detroit Lions are riding euphoria and momentum into the second half of the season.

Things look promising, right? Of Detroit’s eight remaining games, six are against teams currently below .500 in the standings. This is one of the easiest second-half schedules in the league, though it includes Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Giants, perennially competitive teams (collectively, they’ve won five of the last eight Super Bowls) that are all having an off year. Of course, no game is an automatic win, even against such weak sisters as Tampa Bay and Minnesota. But it’s a natural instinct to look at the numbers at the halfway point and try to extrapolate what the final figures will look like. Just double the numbers. Nothing’s easier. A 5-3 record works out to 10-6 and a likely postseason berth.

In fact, according to the calculations of an interesting website, makenflplayoffs.com, the 5-3 Lions now have a 53.3% chance of making the playoffs, just behind Green Bay’s 65.1% in the NFC North. In like Flynn? Well, maybe….but if team history is any guide, probably not.

Believe it or not, that 5-3 start doesn’t bode very well for the Lions’ playoff hopes. Since the NFL started the 16-game season in 1978, the Lions have stood 5-3 at the halfway point on three different occasions. Each time the team played no better than .500 ball in the second half of the season and wound up out of the playoffs.

Monte Clark’s 1980 squad, with Gary Danielson at quarterback and rookie Billy Sims lugging the ball, shot out of the gate with five wins in the first six games, then dropped consecutive road games at Chicago and Kansas City en route to that 5-3 midseason mark. In the last month of the campaign they lost to the Bears in overtime, then dropped a one-point decision to the St. Louis Cardinals. They finished with wins over the Packers and Bucs to tie Minnesota at 9-7, but a tiebreaker gave the Vikings the NFC Central crown and kept the Lions out of the playoffs.

The 1985 squad was coached by Darryl Rogers. In the season’s eighth game, Eric Hipple out-dueled Dan Marino as the Lions beat the Miami Dolphins, 31-21, at the Silverdome to finish the first half of the schedule at 5-3. The team then dropped six of its last eight to finish 7-9, good for fourth place.

Finally, in 2000, the Lions were 5-3 after a 30-18 loss to Peyton Manning’s Colts at Indianapolis. After the Lions dropped their next game, a home loss to Miami, Bobby Ross resigned as coach and Gary Moeller took over. With Charlie Batch under center, the Lions won three straight and, at 8-4, seemed to have a lock on the playoffs. However, they lost three of their final four games, all to division rivals, to end at 9-7.

Curiously, the Lions have been better off when they’ve started the season at 4-4, which would be their record today if not for Matthew Stafford’s head’s-up, headlong dive over center Dominic Raiola in the closing seconds against Dallas. The Lions have finished the halfway point with the break-even mark of 4-4 on six different occasions: in 1981, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2004, and 2012. On two of those occasions they rebounded in the second half of the campaign to finish 9-7 and earn a wild-card berth in the playoffs. In 1994, they lost to Brett Favre’s Packers on New Year’s Eve, and three years later they dropped a 20-10 decision at Tampa Bay.

Those with very short memories know 4-4 is no guarantee of success; in fact, it’s no guarantee the club will even win another game the rest of the way. That’s what happened last year when the Lions beat the Jags at Jacksonville, 31-14, creating hope that the club, having just won three of four contests after a miserable start, might regroup and make a playoff run. Instead the 4-4 Lions dropped their last eight games to finish 4-12.

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