With their 20-17 win over the New York Jets, the Detroit Lions have won six of their last seven games and have, improbably, forced themselves into the playoff race. Before this week, both the Jets and the Lions were functionally the ninth seed in their respective conferences.
Though the Lions will still need favorable results across the NFC to make the playoffs, they’re the next team in should the Giants or Commanders stumble down the stretch. Now at .500, the Lions could make a strong case as the team division winners should be scared of entering the postseason.
The Detroit Lions Are a Threat in the Playoffs
Since Week 7, the Lions rank ninth in net EPA per play, and sixth since Week 10. They’ve been getting better as the season has advanced, and the effect isn’t just simple variance.
Detroit did start off the season injured up front, but the bigger change for them hasn’t been in returning critical offensive and defensive linemen — though that has helped — but in schematic changes on offense and defense.
Given how effective the Jets’ defense has been (fifth in defensive EPA since Week 7), it was significant that the Lions could score as often as they did. Detroit’s passing game finished with 0.31 EPA per play, a lot of that a result of after-catch effort against a defense that normally tackles well.
The first score of the game belongs to all three phases, however. The Lions’ offense didn’t end up with the touchdown, but they forced the field position for the score with the attempt to convert a fourth-down try from the Jets’ 1-yard line. That attempt failed, but New York was backed up in their own end zone and, because of the Lions’ strong defensive line, was forced to lose whatever little yardage they had left.
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The subsequent punt didn’t give Braden Mann the punting room he typically needs and changed his technique and, therefore, the punt’s trajectory. The punt return from Kalif Raymond, thus, started inside Jets territory. And with good blocking from the punt return unit and some nifty moves from Raymond, resulted in a touchdown.
Though the Lions’ offense didn’t score, the decision to go for it on fourth down resulted in seven points instead of three. This has been the core of their approach all year and has been a big part of the advantage Detroit has against other teams that also struggle with their quarterback.
More directly, the final touchdown of the day — and what turned out to be the game-deciding points — also occurred on fourth down. The throw from Jared Goff to Brock Wright on 4th-and-1 coming out of the two-minute warning resulted in a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown that helped seal the win, along with the impressive Lions defensive line — now bolstered with the return of Romeo Okwara and the emergence of sixth-round rookie James Houston.
The New York Jets Are Squandering Their Roster
New York still hasn’t been able to find a quarterback to guide the otherwise impressive team that they’ve built. The defense, in particular, has an impressive collection of talent, with a deep pass rush, strong interior, and fantastic secondary. On offense, they have an underrated receiving group led by a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Garrett Wilson.
But they don’t have someone as mistake-free as Goff. Zach Wilson showcased some of what made him so appealing in the first round but could not keep himself from throwing with poor anticipation or making poor decisions, setting up one of the easiest interceptions of the year for Lions cornerback Jerry Jacobs.
The Jets have an incredible roster, and it’s getting wasted. The Lions have a fantastic roster, and it’s being maximized. This isn’t a referendum on the work of Jets head coach Robert Saleh — it’s a demonstration of the big gulf between bottom-level quarterbacks. It’s much better to have Goff than Wilson.