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Published: Tuesday, 9/4/2012

Backfields could drag down Lions

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Everybody wants to talk about the Detroit Lions' backfields, both the running and defensive types.

But has anyone taken a good look at the schedule?

Instead of focusing on why the Lions can't make the playoffs, let's take a gander at why they can.

Four games against the NFC West. Only the 49ers in San Francisco strike fear.

Four games against the AFC South. Only the Texans at Ford Field on Thanksgiving strike fear.

Presuming a 3-3 split in NFC North Division play -- that's a sweep of the Vikings, a split with the Bears, and the inevitable two losses to the Packers -- and that's nine, maybe 10, wins right there. And 11 victories should nail down a second straight postseason berth.

So, it could all come down to the final two games of the season, both at home, both against formidable opponents. The Atlanta Falcons visit on Dec. 22 for a Saturday night game, and the Bears come calling eight days later.

Dome sweet dome should be packed to the rafters, the roars deafening, the electricity sizzling, the road to the Super Bowl at the end of the rainbow. There's Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson for an early score. There's Ndamukong Suh standing over a fallen quarterback after a sack. There's Cliff Avril tipping a ball into Stephen Tulloch's hands for an interception. What can possibly stop the Detroiters?

Well, there are those two backfields. Sorry, Lions fans, it has to be addressed.

Unless Jahvid Best can somehow overcome long-lingering concussion symptoms and make it back onto the active roster, the Lions will depend on Kevin Smith (who has ankle issues) and Mikel Leshoure at running back. Can that duo be good enough behind an offensive line built to pass block?

The secondary is an even bigger issue. Louis Delmas, penciled in at free safety, had knee surgery on Aug. 7 and hasn't practiced since. Chris Houston, the starting left corner, banged up an ankle in the third exhibition game and hasn't practiced since. Rookie Bill Bentley, a possible starter at right corner, is practicing despite a recent shoulder injury.

In the Lions' world, veteran corner Drayton Florence is cut by Denver on Friday, signed by Detroit on Sunday, and working with the first team on Monday.

Maybe Stafford (5,038 passing yards and 41 TDs last season) and Johnson, the best receiver in the game, can play over all of those question marks. Add in Nate Burleson and rookie Titus Young and the two-headed tight end monster (Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler) and there may be only one thing that can stop the Detroit passing attack -- a key injury.

If that happens, those last two home games might not mean as much.

Squib kicks:

■ In the long run, I think having Drew Brees at quarterback will negate to some degree the absence of suspended head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans. But these are uncharted waters. Joe Vitt, who was designated as interim coach, will miss the first six games. So, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will be the interim interim coach until then. That might make new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo the key coach. He's coming off three years as head man in St. Louis and could lend a calming hand.

But nothing will be more calming for the Saints than having the most consistent passer in the game at the helm of the offense. Brees has compiled six straight seasons of 4,000-plus passing yards. Payton or no Payton, Vitt or no Vitt, Brees should steer N'Awlins into the playoffs.

■ One of the arguments against the Lions making the playoffs is that the Bears did more to improve themselves. Nowhere, perhaps, will that be more apparent than at receiver where Brandon Marshall should be QB Jay Cutler's No. 1 weapon. He's no Calvin Johnson, but those who say Marshall's two years in Miami devalued his stock weren't paying attention to the Dolphins' mediocre quarterback play. Marshall still caught 167 passes for 2,200-plus yards during those two seasons.

■ The NFC East should return to being a feared division, not the one the Giants won with a 9-7 mark a year ago. It also means they'll be beating up on each other, so only the champion might survive with a record worthy of making the playoffs. If Michael Vick stays healthy, always a long shot with his style of play, it should be the Eagles. But the Giants and Cowboys are talented, and even the Redskins are optimistic with rookie Robert Griffin III at quarterback. Not that it means much, but the East went 12-4 during the preseason.

■ Of all the rookie quarterbacks expected to start -- RGIII will be joined by Andrew Luck (Colts), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), and Brandon Weeden (Browns) from the AFC -- maybe the one with the most immediate upside will be Russell Wilson of the Seahawks. A draft day steal in the third round, Wilson clearly won the job over Matt Flynn and helped Seattle to the preseason scoring "championship," averaging 30.5 points per game. Add in RB Marshawn Lynch, and the Seahawks might give the 49ers a run for the West title. On the other hand, games against the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, 49ers, and Lions during the first eight weeks could be too much for a rookie to handle.

■ Speaking of quarterbacks, Matt Ryan of the Falcons completed 45 of 60 passes during the preseason. That was after going 81-of-125 in the final four games last season. He is on the cusp of joining the league's elite passers.

■ The hottest NFC coaching seats -- Kent Whisenhunt, Cardinals; Leslie Frazier, Vikings; Andy Reid, Eagles.

NFC Predictions:

■ East: 1. Eagles; 2. Giants; 3. Cowboys; 4. Redskins.

■ South: 1. Falcons; 2. Saints; 3. Panthers; 4. Bucs.

■ North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings.

■ West: 1. 49ers; 2. Seahawks; 3. Rams; 4. Cardinals.

■ Wild-card teams: Saints, Lions.

■ NFC champion: Packers.

■ Super Bowl champion: Packers d. Texans.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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