The Lions and Buccaneers meet in a compelling Week 1 encounter between two upstart teams that harbor plenty of promise and playoff hopes.
1. Detroit pulled off one of the great statistical success stories of all time in 2010. There are three sure things in life if you're a Lions fan: death, taxes and decades of spirit-crushing defeats. But coach Jim Schwartz, now in his third year, has injected something rarely seen in Motown since Bobby Layne was lifting the Lions to championships back in the 1950s: hope.
The 2008 Lions went 0-16 and certainly join the conversation of worst teams in the history of football. So Schwartz really had nowhere to go but up when he took over in 2009. His first team in 2009 was barely better, at 2-14, and it still scraped the bottom of the statistical barrel we use to rate teams at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com. In fact, the 2009 Lions were dead last across the board in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, as well as dead last in many of our individual indicators of success.
Things changed dramatically in 2010 -- and in ways we've rarely seen in NFL history.
We discussed Detroit's "great statistical leap forward" in detail here during the offseason. Here are some of the highlights based upon the Quality Stats that we use to measure each team. We call them Quality Stats because they have a direct correlation to winning football games.
These numbers are deadly effective measures of team success: Keep in mind that the Super Bowl champ Saints topped our Quality Stats Power Rankings in 2009 and the Super Bowl champ Packers topped the list in 2010.
Put another way: The 2009 Lions were awful in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They couldn't pass effectively and they couldn't stop the pass. It's a perfect recipe for a 2-14 record.
By the way, the 2008 Lions posted a 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating, the worst pass defense in the history of football and the biggest reason the Lions went 0-16. The 2009 Lions were barely better (107.0), the third-worst pass defense in history. That Defensive Passer Rating improved to 89.2 in 2010. Not great, but a far cry from the worst of all time.
The 2010 Lions also fielded a very good offensive line, No. 8 on our Offensive Hog Index. And their defensive line, led by 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, found its way into the top half of the league on our Defensive Hog Index. The passing game was markedly better on both sides of the ball.
Detroit won only six games last season. But based upon the great statistical leap forward we witnessed, the foundation and momentum are certainly there for it to win 10 or even 11 games in 2011.
2. The best young quarterback in the game resides in Tampa, not Baltimore or Atlanta. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, both entering their fourth seasons, have been put on pedestals as the game's best young guns since impressive rookie seasons in 2008. And both have certainly earned their honors: Flacco's Ravens have reached at least the divisional playoffs all three seasons, and Ryan's Falcons posted an NFC-best 13-3 record in 2010.
But it's time to make room on that pedestal of pigskin for the Bucs' Josh Freeman, who's entering his third NFL season. His team has not had quite the same success yet in his first two years. But among the three passers, the single-best statistical performance by any of them belongs to Freeman in 2010.
All three quarterbacks posted their most successful statistical seasons last year, but Freeman's was the best of the bunch. Here's how the three stacked up:
Ryan: 357 of 571 (62.5 percent), 3,705 yards, 6.5 YPA, 28 TD, nine INT, 91.0 rating
Flacco: 306 of 489 (62.6 percent), 3,622 yards, 7.4 YPA, 25 TD, 10 INT, 93.6 rating
Freeman: 291 of 474 (61.4 percent), 3,451 yards, 7.3 YPA, 25 TD, six INT, 95.9 rating
In just his second season, Freeman surpassed the best of the young guns with the highest touchdown percentage, lowest interception rate and best passer rating. He was second in yards per attempt -- an easy-to-understand but critical indicator of success. Anything better than 7.0 is above average. He was third in completion percentage.
But the 25 touchdowns against six interceptions is really what jumps off the stat sheet and boosts his passer rating. Producing scores while minimizing those killer INTs is the hallmark of a winning quarterback. Freeman's TD-INT ratio of better than 4-to-1 in just his second year is really what makes him a player to watch this season.
A little context: The top two quarterbacks all time in TD-INT ratio are Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (2.8-to-1 after Thursday's victory over New Orleans) and New England's Tom Brady (2.5-to-1). That's pretty good company. Now Freeman just needs to prove that he's more than a one-season wonder.
3. Matt Stafford is the game's great unknown. It pays to remember that the Lions took their great statistical leap forward last year largely without starting quarterback Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Journeyman Shaun Hill handled most of snaps last year, starting 10 games in place of the injured Stafford. Ad he performed admirably given the circumstances (16 TD, 12 INT, 81.3 rating) -- as he did when he started in place of another former No. 1 overall pick, Alex Smith, in San Francisco. In fact, we argued that the 49ers should have kept Hill and dumped Smith. But that's a story for another day.
As for Stafford, hopes are still high for him in Detroit and even around the league. But those hopes are based largely on his draft position, not on anything we've actually seen on the field by the oft-injured quarterback. He's appeared in just 13 games in his first two seasons, including just three last year. The evidence on his behalf right now is not compelling: 54.5 percent completions, 19 TD, 21 INT, 5.9 YPA, 67.1 passer rating.
Numbers like those are par for the course for most rookie NFL quarterbacks. And, essentially, Stafford still is a rookie, at least in terms of experience. But they're not numbers that lead to playoff appearances. So the Era of Good Feeling in Detroit hinges largely on Stafford finally fulfilling the expectations of a No. 1 overall draft pick. He's now in his third year and, well, the clock is ticking.
It's always dangerous to base the future upon numbers from last season. After all, as the Lions and Bucs themselves proved in 2010, fortunes change fast in the Not For Long League. But in Week 1 we have little choice in the matter.
So with that caveat, there's one clear statistical mismatch in this game among otherwise relatively even teams: Detroit's offensive line vs. Tampa's defensive line.
Detroit was fairly solid in the offensive front last year, as we noted earlier. It ranked No. 8 on our Offensive Hog Index, which measures each unit by how well it runs the ball, protects the passer (as measured by percentage of sacks and INTs) and converts third downs. The Lions averaged just 3.99 YPA on the ground, but were very good at protecting the passer: They suffered a Negative Pass Play on just 6.52 percent of dropbacks.
Only three teams were better: the 14-2 Patriots, the 13-3 Falcons and the 10-6 Colts -- all teams with big-name quarterbacks. The Lions were playing largely with Shaun Hill at quarterback -- not a guy who's known for his quick, pass-rush beating release. But Detroit suffered just 27 sacks all year. It was an impressive performance.
And it's bad news for Tampa, at least if it doesn't improve dramatically up front.
Tampa counters with a defensive front that was among the worst in football last year -- No. 30 on our Defensive Hog Index. The Bucs couldn't stop the run (4.75 YPA). They were below averaging rusher the passer, forcing a Negative Pass Play on 8.2 percent of dropbacks. And they were abysmal on third down, allowing opponents to convert 43.2 percent of attempts (31st).
It was easily Tampa's statistical weak link. But certainly one it addressed. The Bucs attacked in the draft, with three Defensive Hogs with each of their first three picks: DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Da'Quan Bowers and MLB Mason Foster. Clayborn and Foster are both listed at the top of Tampa's depth chart right now.
Will the picks pay off? Well, we'll know a lot more Sunday. Right now, the battle looks to be advantage, Detroit. But like we said, things change fast in the NFL.
The Lions enter this game with plenty of momentum, statistically and otherwise. They closed out the 2010 season with four straight victories, including consecutive December wins over the future champion Packers (7-3) and then the Buccaneers in Tampa (a 23-20 overtime victory). If Stafford fulfills the hype, he makes this something close to an even battle at quarterback.
Pick: Detroit 24, Tampa 20