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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh stands on the field during warms-ups of their NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Detroit Reuters

In 2011, the Lions looked like one of the NFL’s up-and-coming teams, with young high draft picks like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh leading them to the playoffs.

And then the Lions came back to earth with a thud in 2012.

The Lions’ 12-loss season in ’12 was a disaster on the field, not to mention off the field, where the Lions became the poster boys for bad behavior in the NFL. This offseason has been a little quieter in Detroit, but will that lead to a better season on the field?

Our six-person PFT panel voted the Lions the NFL’s No. 20 team this season. We explore the reasons for that ranking below.

Strengths.

It all starts with the passing game, where the highly paid Matthew Stafford and the even more highly paid Calvin Johnson are one of the best young combinations in football. Johnson, who broke the all-time single-season receiving yards record last year, is one of the most talented receivers in NFL history. Players with his size, athletic ability and sure hands just don’t come along very often, and there’s every reason to believe that Megatron will continue to be one of the league’s elite offensive players.

Based on pure talent, the Lions also have a defensive line that could make scouts drool, but it remains to be seen whether that talent will translate into great results. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has said that he thinks he and Ndamukong Suh are the best pair of tackles in the NFL, although Suh wisely said he’d rather let his play do the talking on that one. Ziggy Ansah, the defensive end whom the Lions picked with the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft, also has freakish athletic talent, but he’s still new to the sport and may not be ready to be an every-down player as a rookie.

The secondary has been a weakness of the Lions, but they could be strong at safety if Louis Delmas can stay healthy and new arrival Glover Quin can play as well for Detroit as he did for Houston. Delmas and Quin have the ability to be one of the better safety combinations in the league.

Weaknesses.

The Lions’ offensive line struggled last season, and it remains to be seen whether things will get any better this year. At first blush, it would actually appear that the line has gotten worse: Starting left tackle Jeff Backus retired, starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus left to take a big contract with the Colts, and starting right guard Stephen Peterman was a cap casualty who ended up signing with the Jets. The best the Lions can hope for is that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff proves to be ready to fill Backus’s shoes and that some combination of holdovers Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox, rookie Larry Warford and veteran additions Jake Scott and Leroy Harris can take up the two spots on the right side of the line.

Special teams were a disaster for the Lions last year, and kick coverage was the biggest reason that the Lions quickly dropped to the bottom of the NFC North: Detroit’s 1-3 start included back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Titans in which the Lions gave up both a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown, making them the first team in NFL history to accomplish that dubious feat. If the Lions’ kick coverage had gotten the job done, there’s a good chance they would have started 3-1 instead of 1-3. Kick returner Stefan Logan also had a disastrous season. The special teams absolutely must get better this year.

Changes.

Reggie Bush is the highest-profile addition to the Lions, and he has the potential to be a game-changer. The Lions got just about nothing in the way of big plays from their running game last year: Mikel Leshoure, their leading rusher, never had a run of more than 16 yards all season. Bush is the kind of big-play threat who can change that, and he said after he signed with the Lions that he’s licking his chops from watching film of the way defenses leave running lanes open while focusing most of their attention on stopping Megatron. Bush could also have the kind of impact on the passing game that Jahvid Best had before concussions derailed him during the 2011 season. Best had 27 catches for 287 yards in six games in 2011 before his season came to an end.

An even more noteworthy change may be that Jason Hanson, the Lions kicker who set an all-time NFL record for the most games played with one team, has finally called it a career. He’s been replaced by David Akers, who struggled with accuracy last year with the 49ers but who has a stronger leg than Hanson. The Lions need Akers to find his accuracy, but if he can, he’ll help turn around their special teams.

Both of last year’s starting defensive ends, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, are gone. Ansah will take over one of the starting spots, and the other is likely to be filled by Jason Jones, who was a backup for the Seahawks last season. The Lions have to hope that Ansah and Jones can fill in for Vanden Bosch and Avril without missing a beat.

Camp Battles.

The right side of the offensive line will be up in the air going into training camp. At right tackle, Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox will compete, but it’s unlikely that either will be as good as last year’s starter, Gosder Cherilus. At right guard, rookie Larry Warford is the favorite to start, but Jake Scott and Leroy Harris will be around if Warford isn’t ready yet.

At cornerback, Chris Houston will be one of the starters, but the other starting spot is wide open. The Lions would love it if second-round pick Darius Slay can prove in training camp that he’s ready to be an NFL starter from Day One of his pro career, but if Slay needs some time to develop, the starting job could go to any of last year’s three cornerback draft picks (Jonte Green, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood) or veteran Ronald Bartell.

Prospects.

The Lions’ leadership simply can’t afford another 4-12 season. It would be hard to justify G.M. Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz keeping their jobs in that scenario. So improvement is important.

And improvement is also likely: This team has too much talent to be as bad this year as it was last year.

Still, the outlook for the Lions isn’t great. They look like the worst team in the NFC North, and a second consecutive last-place finish is likely.

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Sanchez gets Thanksgiving redemption

Sanchez AP

The butt fumble has yielded to an ass kicking.

Two years ago, the career of quarterback Mark Sanchez hit a nadir when his noggin slammed into the backside of guard Brandon Moore.  The accidental blast into Moore’s hind quarters resulted in a turnover, and the term “butt fumble” was born.

Fast forward to November 2014, where Sanchez has authored a stirring victory over the Cowboys in their own building.  The 33-10 final score — the second-worst Dallas loss on Thanksgiving — suggests that a significant gap exists between the two teams vying for supremacy in the NFC East.  It also will make some wonder whether that 8-3 start by Dallas will inevitably disintegrate into another Auld Lang Syne of 8-8.

For the day, Sanchez threw for under 300 yards for the first time while playing for the Eagles.  He had a career-high 202 yards in the first half, but the Eagles didn’t need him to throw much in the second two quarters, with the defense stifling the Dallas offense and running back LeSean McCoy moving the chains.

With the Seahawks and Cowboys due to visit Philly in the next two weeks and Nick Foles‘ collarbone possibly taking longer than 6-8 weeks to heal, it could be that Sanchez will remain the starter for the rest of the regular season and beyond, with the former Jet whose prospects nose dived after back to back AFC title-game appearances getting a chance to take the Eagles to the NFC championship, and possibly beyond.

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Amid rampant rumors and reports, 49ers front office silent about Harbaugh

Harbaugh Getty Images

As the 49ers move closer to the end of the 2014 season, the sense that coach Jim Harbaugh will be leaving the franchise continues to linger.

Through it all, the organization hasn’t done much to push back against the perception that Harbaugh won’t be back for 2015.  When the reports reached critical mass in early October, with some suggesting that the players wanted Jim to hit the road, Jack, owner Jed York offered up this via Twitter:  “Jim is my coach.  We are trying to win a [Super Bowl], not a personality or popularity contest.  Any more questions?”

While the quest to win a Super Bowl this year continues, with a showdown against the Seahawks starting later tonight, there has been nothing more from the organization to rebut the notion that, as soon as the season ends, the process of separating will commence.

Jay Glazer of FOX Sports has reported that Harbaugh will be gone regardless of whether the team wins the Super Bowl.  Weeks later, that specific report hasn’t been rebutted or refuted by the team.

That’s caused some in the league to notice that Harbaugh hasn’t received the support he deserves in what apparently will be his final year.  Eventually, the question will be Harbaugh’s next move — which is expected to entail staying in the Bay Area or, at a minimum, on the West Coast.  It makes the Raiders (Oakland or L.A.) the most likely NFL landing spot for Harbaugh.

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With Ron Parker moving to safety, Chiefs look at cornerbacks

Lankster Getty Images

The season-ending illness to safety Eric Berry has prompted the Chiefs to move cornerback Ron Parker back to the position he maintained while Berry missed time due to an ankle injury.  Which means that the Chiefs need to beef up the depth chart not at the safety position, but at the cornerback position.

Toward that end, the Chiefs have worked out a trio of cornerbacks.  Per a league source, they’ve taken a look at Ellis Lankster (pictured), Johnny Patrick, and DeMarcus Van Dyke.

Parker’s play during Berry’s absence earned a starting cornerback job for him.  Philip Gaines, a third-round rookie from Rice, could be in line to replace Parker at starting cornerback.

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Eagles push lead to 20

McCoy AP

Barring a comeback that would become fodder for legends on par with Clint Longley and Leon Lett, the Eagles will be beating the Cowboys in their first Thanksgiving Day get-together since the Bounty Bowl in 1989.

Midway through the third quarter, the Eagles lead the Cowboys, 30-10.

Philly running back LeSean McCoy has 129 yards rushing on 17 carries, including a 38-yard run that pushing the margin to 20 points.

Down 23-7, Dallas had a chance to make things interesting after a McCoy fumble deep in the Eagles’ end of the field.  But Philly’s defense stiffened, culminating in a self-sack by Tony Romo aimed at keeping his fragile back in one piece.

There’s plenty of time left, but Dallas will have to find a way to triple its output of points in the next 20 minutes of clock time.  If that doesn’t happen, the Eagles will move to 9-3, the Cowboys will fall to 8-4, and the rematch will happen on December 14 on NBC.

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Seahawks may wait to work out new deal with Wilson

Wilson AP

After the Seahawks won the Super Bowl to cap quarterback Russell Wilson’s second NFL season, it became a given that Seattle would sign Wilson to a big-money contract as soon as he became eligible for a new deal, after the completion of the 2014 regular season.

With the Seahawks struggling (in comparison to last year) and with Wilson showing signs of regression, the Seahawks may decide to wait.

Per a league source, the team’s willingness to give Wilson a new deal will depend in large part on how the current season turns out.  Miss the playoffs or get eliminated early, and the Seahawks will be inclined to wait.  Return to the Super Bowl, and a new deal becomes more likely.

Whatever happens, the Seahawks will be sure to do that which is regarded as fair within the locker room.  They didn’t hesitate to pay cornerback Richard Sherman or safety Earl Thomas, cognizant of the importance of rewarding those who have helped contribute to the team’s success.

Wilson definitely has contributed, but the challenge becomes pegging his value if both player and team achieve a lot less than they did last year.

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Eagles take 16-point lead at halftime

Sanchez AP

It looked like it was going to be a shootout, but the Cowboys haven’t done much shooting.

At halftime in Dallas, the Eagles lead the Cowboys, 23-7.

After the Cowboys cut the lead in half, the Eagles generated a trio of field goals, while keeping the Cowboys off the board.

Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez has 202 yards passing, a career first-half high.  He has thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games.

The Cowboys get the ball to start the third quarter.  Philly’s failure to turn multiple opportunities inside the 10 into touchdowns could come back to haunt the Eagles, if/when Dallas can start scoring more points — and start holding the Eagles from doing the same.

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Cowboys cut lead in half

Romo AP

A Thanksgiving shootout could be shaping up in Dallas.

Down 14-0, the Cowboys on their second drive of the game punched in a touchdown that trimmed the Philly lead in half.

The seven-play, 67-yard drive ended with a short touchdown run from running back DeMarco Murray.  The touchdown was set up by a 38-yard pass from quarterback Tony Romo to receiver Dez Bryant, who hauled in the pass despite being interfered with.  (Again.)

The Eagles lead 14-7 early in the second quarter.

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Eagles take 14-0 lead over Cowboys

Sanchez AP

For the second time in five days, the Cowboys face a double-digit deficit against an NFC East rival.

On Sunday night, they came from 11 behind to beat the Giants.  On Thursday, the Cowboys trail the Eagles by 14.

Philly scored on each of its two drives, with a 2-yard run from quarterback Mark Sanchez and a 27-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to receiver Jordan Matthews.

In between, the Eagles eventually forced a Dallas punt on a drive that ended with Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant apparently being interfered with on third down.  A flag was not thrown.

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Sanchez leads Eagles to touchdown on opening drive

Sanchez AP

In his shot at redemption for an embarrassing Thanksgiving game with the Jets two years ago, Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez engineered a touchdown drive to open the game.

Sanchez completed four of five passes for 30 yards, capping the 80-yard effort with a two-yard run on a read-option play.

Wisely, Sanchez ran where the butts weren’t.

The touchdown was upheld on replay review, and the Eagles lead, 7-0.

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Griffin addresses media, says he’s here to help the team win

Griffin Getty Images

Last week, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was focused on San Francisco.  Now, he’s focused on something other than playing.

On Thursday, Griffin met with reporters for the first time since he was supplanted by Colt McCoy.

It was Coach’s decision,” Griffin said, via Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com.  “I’m here to help this team win.”

Asked to explain his level of disappointment over the decision, Griffin repeated himself.  The same way he did last week.

“Like I said, it was Coach’s decision,” Griffin said.  “I’m here to help this team win.”

Will he use the situation as motivation?

“Be ready to play,” Griffin said.  “I’m here to help the team win anyway I can.”

He won’t be helping the team by playing, at least not for now.  We’ll have more on what the events of the past few days actually mean for Griffin later tonight.  Unless the Tryptophan wins.

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Julius Thomas practices, Fox dubs tight end “day to day”

Thomas Getty Images

Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who hasn’t done much since injuring an ankle 11 days ago, participated in Thursday’s practice on a limited basis.

Via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, it’s the most Thomas has done in the aftermath of the injury.

Coach John Fox declined to say much about whether Thomas will face the Chiefs on Sunday night.

“We’re just day to day,” Fox said, via quotes distributed by the team.  “I don’t like trying to predict the future.”

A label will be applied to the expected availability of Thomas on Friday.

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Lions snap two-game skid, beat Bears to improve to 8-4

calvinjohnson AP

After back-to-back losses raised questions about the Lions’ ability to contend for a playoff berth, Detroit got the win it needed today.

The Lions started slowly and fell behind 14-3, but a three-touchdown second quarter turned things around in a hurry, and the Lions controlled the second half as well to win 34-17.

Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had a big day, catching 11 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Now that Johnson is finally back to 100 percent healthy, the Lions’ offense may finally be back on track. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had been struggling for much of the season, had an excellent game. Stafford completed 34 of 45 passes for 390 yards, with those two touchdowns to Johnson and no interceptions.

The Lions’ defense shook off its slow start, in which Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery scored two first-quarter touchdowns, and mostly shut down the Bears the rest of the way. Detroit’s run defense was particularly impressive, and safety Glover Quinn made a great diving interception after Darius Slay tipped a Jay Cutler pass that ended the Bears’ last chance to make a game of it.

For the Bears, the loss drops their record to 5-7 and makes clear that they’re not going anywhere. After showing some promise in Marc Trestman’s first season last year, the Bears have taken a step backward. Now about all the Bears can do is hope to play spoiler over the next three weeks, when they have games against playoff contenders Dallas, New Orleans and Detroit again.

The 8-4 Lions, however, are very much alive in the playoff race. If the Packers lose to the Patriots on Sunday, the Lions would become the leaders in the NFC North. And even if the Packers win, the Lions are in good position for a wild-card run. This was a game the Lions needed to win, and they delivered with one of their best performances of the season.

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Acho active for Eagles

Acho Getty Images

As the Eagles prefer to face a pick-your-poison offense, they’ll have a defensive player who was injured on Sunday in uniform.

Linebacker Emmanuel Acho is active and will play after injuring a groin against the Titans.  He has been splitting time with Casey Matthews at inside linebacker in place of DeMeco Ryans, who tore an Achilles tendon several weeks ago.

Inactive for the Eagles are quarterback Nick Foles, cornerback Roc Carmichael, safety Jaylen Watkins, offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly, receiver Jeff Maehl, and Taylor Hart.

The Cowboys’ inactives include quarterback Dustin Vaughan, cornerback Tyler Patmon, safety Jeff Heath, linebacker Dekoda Watson, offensive tackle Tony Hills, offensive tackle Donald Hawkins, and defensive tackle Josh Brent.

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Megatron scores twice, tops 10,000 career receiving yards

calvinjohnson AP

Calvin Johnson has topped 100 yards in the first half today, and 10,000 yards in his NFL career.

Johnson scored two touchdown in the second quarter against the Bears to help give the Lions a 24-14 lead, and he caught nine passes for 109 receiving yards in the first half, making him the fastest player in NFL history to reach the 10,000-yard mark.

The NFL has changed enormously in the last couple of decades, and so it’s no surprise that 27 of the 43 players with 10,000 yards started their careers in 1990 or later. A 10,000-yard career is not what it used to be, but Johnson still has many more good seasons left in him. Jerry Rice’s record of 22,895 receiving yards may be beyond reach for anyone, but Megatron may move into second place before he’s all done. The No. 2 spot on the all-time receiving yards list is currently occupied by Terrell Owens, with 15,934 receiving yards.

Now we’ll see if the Lions can keep it going in the second half, and re-establish themselves as contenders in the NFC playoff race.

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Bears banged up on defense, Detroit takes advantage

megatron AP

The Bears’ defense has suffered a couple of first-half injuries today at Detroit, and the Lions are taking advantage.

Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington has been ruled out for the rest of the game with a chest injury, and safety Chris Conte left for what was first termed a concussion evaluation but later termed an eye injury. The Bears were already without linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, so they’re really hurting.

And the Lions are really taking advantage: After going 25 drives over three games without a single touchdown, Detroit scored on back-to-back drives. The first was a nine-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. The second was a 10-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run from Joique Bell.

That gave the Lions a 17-14 lead. The Bears started fast, with two Alshon Jeffery touchdown passes, but the Lions have turned this game around in a hurry.

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