The Pro Football Notebook

January 3, 2011 6:25 AM

Detroit & Cleveland Close In Opposite Directions

LionsBrowns.jpgWe'll be talking about the playoff teams every day from now through the Super Bowl, so let's take today and salute a team that's made tremendous strides and ended the season on a four-game winning streak. The Detroit Lions pushed their record to 6-10 with a win over Minnesota. All year long, the Lions had been the league's hard-luck story. Bettors loved them because they always managed to cover the Vegas spread, but they weren't quite there when it came to winning games. Recall Week 1 and a controversial call on what looked like Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown in Chicago, resulted in a win being taken away and outrage in the national media over the call. Before the month was over, the Lions had gone to Lambeau Field, outplayed Green Bay, but beat themselves with 13 penalties in a two-point loss. They lost in overtime to the Jets. The losses eventually piled up to 2-10. But to the great credit of Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff, this team didn't give up. They kept knocking on the door until they pushed it in. They upset Green Bay and Tampa Bay, fundamentally re-shaping the playoff picture--those wins meant the Packers missed the NFC North title and the Buccaneers missed the playoffs altogether. And the Lions closed it with wins over Miami and Minnesota. In a division where the Vikings appear unlikely to turn it around anytime fast, there's room to move up. And Detroit is ready to ascend. These Lions are cowardly no longer.

Detroit's Rustbelt neighbor in Cleveland closed the season on precisely the opposite note. After midseason wins over New Orleans and New England, the Browns were 3-5, and widely seen as a team that would push to .500 and have a load of momentum going into next year. They split their next four and were looking forward to December. But they dropped their final four games, ending with a terrible game yesterday against Pittsburgh. The Browns ceased to be able to run the ball, as Peyton Hillis faded down the stretch. Colt McCoy wasn't the same after he came back from his high ankle sprain the last two weeks--although we should grant the fact he had to face the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses didn't help the cause of a rookie quarterback. The collapse and 5-11 finish should end any notions that Eric Mangini should be a head coach in the NFL. He had one good year in 2006 with the Jets and has been terrible ever since. With Mike Holmgren sitting there as team president and rumored to be hungry to coach again, it's fair to say Mangini could be unemployed by the time you read this.

Finally, Seattle's 16-6 win over St. Louis has given the NFL its first sub-.500 playoff team as 7-9 was good enough to win the NFC West and means the Seahawks get to host the 12-4 Saints in Saturday's first-round game. But can we please drop the shocked suggestions that this means the NFL needs to revise its playoff format? If you have divisions of only four teams and play just 6 of 16 games against division rivals, the odds are overwhelming that eventually you'll have one division out of eight deliver four clunkers. This was a situation that could have been easily anticipated when the league went to this format in 2002--if I'd been blogging then, I'd have pointed it out, since I brought it up to friends at the time. So someone in the NFL offices has to be bright enough to figure it out. The league obviously made a decision that the benefits of small divisions and a reduced percentage of intra-divisional games (in the old format, divisions were 5 teams, ensuring half your games were in your own backyard) outweighed the risks. Given that we've had 72 division races since '02 and one has ended with a losing team winning the division, we should just live with the consequences.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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