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The Detroit Lions Are Stuck In The NFL’s Weirdest Purgatory

When over the summer we sought out the most average team currently in professional sports, the Detroit Lions weren’t No. 1 — not even among their NFL peers. (That was the Seattle Seahawks, who are an appropriate 5-5 this season.) But as we close in on Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day football showcase, the Lions are pursuing a different, even weirder form of mediocrity: The team is always average-adjacent, if never actually .500.

In each of the past three seasons, the Lions have finished 9-7 or 7-9. They also did it back in 2013, with an odd 11-win campaign in 2014 standing out as the lone exception from the last five seasons. And this year? After Sunday’s heart-stopping win over the Carolina Panthers, Detroit sits at 4-6 with a FiveThirtyEight-projected record of … you guessed it, 7-9. The Lions just can’t avoid the pull of sevens and nines.

One of the weirdest things about Detroit’s run of average-ish records is that it never actually finishes 8-8. The last time that happened was 1999; so in the past 20 seasons, the Lions have finished 0-16 just as often as they’ve finished 8-8. And, yet, over the long run, things always average out to, well, average: From 2011 to now, Detroit has a 61-61 record, perfectly .500.

The Lions have found different ways to get there over the years, too. In 2013, they started hot at 6-3 before collapsing down the stretch to finish 7-9. In 2015, they were horrible early (1-7) before rallying with a 6-2 finish to go … 7-9. In 2016, their 9-7 season was fueled by four separate streaks of at least three consecutive wins or losses. In 2017, the same record happened with fewer sustained periods of consistent goodness or badness.

True to form, this year’s Lions have been all over the place. They lost to the New York Jets at home during opening week by 31 points, yet they have beaten the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins and the Panthers (combined record: 22-17-1). New coach Matt Patricia — a Bill Belichick defensive disciple — has overseen a defense that’s allowing even more points and yards per game than it did last season, while QB Matthew Stafford has continued to frustrate with a mix of great performances (such as his 138.1 passer rating against Miami in Week 7) and subpar ones (an 81.5 rating over the past three weeks against a series of defenses that have allowed an average of 87.9 on the season overall).

And yet, despite it all, Detroit is still in position to potentially maintain its streak of going 9-7 or — more likely — 7-9. Our model gives the Lions a 9 percent chance of landing on exactly nine wins and a 26 percent shot at getting exactly seven.

Whenever we dissect our simulations looking for important games, we usually target games that have the highest leverage on a team’s chances of making the playoffs or winning its division. But in this case, I wanted to look for the games that had the most importance to Detroit’s quest to finish either 9-7 or 7-9. Here is the series of outcomes that happen disproportionately more often in universes where Detroit has either of those records:

Which wins will help Detroit’s quest for 7-9 (or 9-7)?

Winning outcomes that most change the Detroit Lions’ chances of going either 9-7 or 7-9 by season’s end, based on FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo simulations

Chances of Going 7-9 Chances of Going 9-7
Week Opponent % POINT INCREASE Week Opponent % POINT INCREASE
14 at ARI +7.6 13 vs. LAR +15.0
15 at BUF +5.5 17 at GB +14.4
16 vs. MIN +4.9 16 vs. MIN +13.8
12 vs. CHI +4.2 15 at BUF +13.6
17 at GB +3.9 12 vs. CHI +13.3
13 vs. LAR +1.3 14 at ARI +12.1

As you can see on the left side of the table above, the Lions’ Week 14 game against Arizona has the greatest potential impact on Detroit’s chances to end the season with a record of 7-9. If the Lions win that game, their chances of going 7-9 increase by 7.6 percentage points relative to scenarios in which the Lions lose. (The most important game for finishing 9-7, meanwhile, is Week 13’s home battle against the Rams — where winning will be a much taller order.)

Of course, most teams would probably want to escape either uninspiring fate. When the Lions embarked on their current era — drafting wide receiver Calvin Johnson second overall in 2007, Stafford first in 2009 and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh second in 2010 — they probably had visions of something more than finishing with some combination of seven or nine wins every single season. But between changes to the league’s rookie wage scale right after the Lions assembled that core, Johnson’s abrupt retirement at age 30 in 2016, Stafford’s failure to crack the top dozen or so QBs of his generation and plenty of other factors, Detroit has managed to make the playoffs only three times since 2011, with zero postseason wins in that span. And, yet, they haven’t been bad enough to consistently earn valuable spots atop the NFL draft, either: Since 2011, they’ve had first-round picks in the Nos. 15-25 range — not exactly the place to hunt for franchise-altering superstars — four times, with their highest pick being No. 5 in 2013.

Our model gives Detroit only a 7 percent chance of making the playoffs this season, so it will probably end up being yet another season of purgatory in the Motor City. But, hey, at least there is a distinct pattern to the Lions’ mediocrity — and it involves lots of sevens and nines.

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