2017 NFL Preview: Lions will have trouble repeating a lucky season

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Detroit Lions were exciting last season.

Of the Lions’ 16 regular-season games last season, a staggering 13 were decided by seven points or less. Their first 11 games were one-score games. Seven of those games were decided by three points or less. And the Lions won a ton of those games: 8-5 in one-possession games, 5-2 in games decided by a field goal or less. Most of those wins came in the final minutes of regulation.

That made the Lions fun to watch. It didn’t make them good, though.

The Lions made the playoffs and were quickly dumped in an uncompetitive loss at the Seattle Seahawks. They were outscored by 12 points last season. They ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. They were 25th in Jeff Sagarin’s metrics at USA Today. They were undeniably bad on defense and couldn’t run the ball, though quarterback Matthew Stafford had a nice season before he injured his finger. They were one of the weaker wild-card teams you’ll find.

Many close games in the NFL are practically coin flips. You’ve seen enough of them. A weird bounce, a 50-50 catch, something happens to turn a tight game in one team’s direction. Some years, you catch every break. The 2015 Denver Broncos were masterful at it, going 11-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including playoffs. Of course, the Broncos slipped from 12-4 and Super Bowl champs to 9-7 and out of the playoffs last season.

Fans hate hearing how luck determines NFL outcomes, but winning eight one-score games isn’t something you can plan on happening again, especially when you finish with nine wins total. Regression is in order for the Lions this season. They’re going to have to play much better to sniff the playoffs again.

The Lions have a good start. Stafford has become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He didn’t have a gigantic leap during his first full season in coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, which seemed possible after a strong finish in 2015, but he was still on the fringe of the MVP race when he suffered a dislocation and tore ligaments in his right middle finger Week 14. In the final four games after that he still threw the ball well at times, but still had just two touchdowns and four interceptions. Overall, it was a fine season that answered a lot of questions after Calvin Johnson retired. While that record in close games was fluky, give Stafford credit for making some enormous plays in those wins.

It would help if the Lions could ever put together a run game. Adding right tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang in free agency helps. Losing left tackle Taylor Decker for four-to-six months to a torn labrum in his shoulder really hurts though. That injury turns the Lions offensive line from a potential strength into a question mark again. The Lions haven’t had a 1,200-yard rusher since Barry Sanders retired after the 1998 season. Even if Ameer Abdullah suddenly stays healthy, he’s no sure thing to crack 1,000 yards. They just can’t seem to figure out a running game.

The defense needs to get better. The Lions allowed a 106.5 passer rating last season, the highest mark in the NFL. Star end Ezekiel Ansah was hurt most of last season, which set back the entire defense. The linebacker play wasn’t great, and first-round pick Jarrad Davis should help. But there weren’t a lot of meaningful additions in the offseason. They’ll mostly have to make a huge improvement from within.

The Lions’ formula for making the playoffs is probably the same as it was last season. They’ll rely on Stafford to carry a good passing offense, and try to win without a great defense or a reliable run game. Stafford should keep them in games. Maybe they’ll again win an inordinate amount of those tight contests. I just wouldn’t bet on it.

Matthew Stafford led the Lions to the playoffs last season. (AP)

The additions of right tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang were good, though tackle Riley Reiff and guard Larry Warford walked in free agency and got big deals themselves. Wagner and Lang might be upgrades, but it’s not a franchise changer for the $76 million the Lions handed to them. Wagner and Lang each got $9.5 million per season. There were some low-key defensive line additions in tackle Akeem Spence and end Cornelius Washington, but neither will make a huge impact. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, the team’s first-round pick, needs to be a big difference maker. Tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and Greg Robinson, added in the wake of Taylor Decker’s injury, are desperate fliers. Grade: C

The Lions rebounded from Calvin Johnson’s retirement nicely. They have a good set of receivers for Matthew Stafford. Golden Tate had 1,077 yards last season despite a slow start. Marvin Jones faded after a great start but still ended up with 930 yards. Tight end Eric Ebron hasn’t lived up to his draft spot (two picks before Odell Beckham … sigh) but he did have 711 yards in 13 games and it just feels like a bigger season is possible. The Lions can’t run the ball but Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah are good receivers out of the backfield. There’s a good set of skill-position players in Detroit.

The pass defense was not good last season. The Lions better hope linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerback Teez Tabor, a second-round pick who did not run well at the combine, help. Because the Lions did little else to fix the problem, other than sign failed former Oakland Raiders first-round pick D.J. Hayden. The Lions’ 106.5 passer rating allowed wasn’t just the worst in the NFL, it was the worst by a mile. Only two teams allowed a rating higher than 98.5 and the Cleveland Browns were a distant second at 101.8. The Lions focused on not allowing big plays, surrendering only six plays of 40 or more yards last season, but the result was an insane 72.7 completion percentage allowed. Even with a bend-but-don’t-break lean, the Lions ranked just 22nd in the NFL in yards allowed per pass play. They need to do more to force the issue this season.

Let’s get this out of the way: When Matthew Stafford signs his contract, everyone will freak out. Get some of it out of your system now. It seems inevitable that Stafford, who can become a free agent after the season, will become the highest-paid player in NFL history at more than $25 million a year. The team is working on an extension and it will happen. That’s just the price of business at quarterback. Nobody who rips the deal will answer this question: What is the Lions’ better option? It’s not like they can offer Stafford $15 million per year and force him to take it. If the Lions don’t pay Stafford, someone will. And Detroit can’t get anyone better to replace him.

Ezekiel Ansah had 14.5 sacks in 2015 and was one of the best defensive ends in football. Then 2016 was a nightmare. Ansah suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 and never seemed to recover. He finished with two sacks. The Lions did practically nothing to help a poor pass rush in the offseason, so they’re banking on Ansah. Ansah is banking on himself too; he’s an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Lions desperately need Ansah to be a double-digit sack player this season, then they’ll figure out his contract afterward.

Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Detroit’s offense didn’t change substantially at the skill spots during the offseason, and that’s OK. Fantasy owners and NFL fans are generally excited by splashy signings, but year-to-year continuity is an attribute of winning teams. The biggest open question surrounding the Lions, at least for fantasy purposes, is whether Ameer Abdullah can finally contribute in a meaningful way. He opened 2016 by gaining 120 scrimmage yards in a win against the Colts, but he was lost for the year after suffering a foot injury in Week 2. Detroit didn’t add anyone of note in the backfield, so Abdullah gets another shot at fantasy relevance.”

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Not to keep harping on how fortunate the Lions were last season, but this was not even a normal “win a lot of close games” type season. The Lions trailed in the fourth quarter of eight of their nine wins. The Lions trailed or were tied in the final 90 seconds of six of their wins, and in their final win they trailed until 3:17 remained. It’s not fair to say they could have finished 1-15 because that would assume a ton of bad luck … but it’s not entirely crazy either. Credit the Lions for late-game brilliance, and also understand that it’s very unlikely another team will ever replicate what they did.

CAN THE LIONS FINALLY RUN THE BALL?

Theo Riddick was the Lions’ leading rusher with 357 yards last season. Detroit finished 30th in rushing yards, 26th in rushing touchdowns and 27th in yards per rush. While it’s reasonable to blame the offensive line, it was a bit surprising the Lions did nothing at running back in the offseason. Ameer Abdullah has flashed talent (he did average 5.6 yards per carry in a small sample last season) but a Lisfranc foot injury suffered in Week 2 ruined his season. Maybe if Abdullah stays healthy and Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang upgrade the line, the Lions can finally produce a decent run game. They need it.

Of all the teams we’re revealed on the preview series already, the Lions have by far the best quarterback. That’s not trivial. Matthew Stafford was having an excellent season before he injured his finger, and maybe there’s another level. This is a team that should have won the NFC North last season and blew it. Yeah, it took a lot of luck to get in that position, but winning the division still should be a feasible goal, especially if Stafford plays like a top-five quarterback.

If the Lions lost just half of those wins in which they trailed in the fourth quarter, we’re talking about a team coming off a 5-11 season. There are significant question marks: pass rush, secondary, left tackle as long as Taylor Decker is out, and running game. This is a team that clearly relies on Stafford too much. No matter what you think of the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” list, it’s telling that Stafford was he only Lions player to appear on it. Every other 2016 playoff team had at least two players on that list. It’s easy to see this going bad in a hurry and Jim Caldwell’s time as head coach coming to an end.

As you can tell, I believe close wins are fool’s gold. Magic doesn’t carry over. As such, I don’t see the Lions as a playoff team that might make the next step. Their next step is going to be backward. Only a monster season from Matthew Stafford could get Detroit back in the playoffs again this season.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!