Scott McMahon

The Detroit Lions 5 Toughest Games Of 2014

Jun 30, 2014 10:12 AM EST

In retrospect, the Detroit Lions were blessed with one of the easier schedules in the league in 2013. Their lineup included two against the Minnesota Vikings, home games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, and road trips to face the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns. All in all, the Lions strength of schedule last season was 29th in the NFL, poor enough to earn them the highest pick in May’s draft among the four 7-9 teams.

Looking ahead to 2014, the Lions strength of schedule for the upcoming season is .488, good for 16th in the league. It may not sound terrible on paper -- especially with the quality team that Lions fans are expecting to field -- but a deeper dive into the schedule reveals a few matchups that will be tough for Detroit to overcome if it wishes to win its first division title since 1993.

1. Week 7 vs New Orleans Saints

This game will be interesting for many reasons. New Lions OC Joe Lombardi will match up against the team and quarterback he coached for the past five seasons, and whose playbook the Lions have mirrored. Barring injury, the Saints will be led by QB Drew Brees, who, in three regular season games against the Lions, has completed a shade under 75 percent of his passes for 1,051 yards, 11 touchdowns and just one interception.

If there is any game for Teryl Austin’s new defensive attitude to take hold, it is here. The Saints offense has consistently been among the NFL’s best since Sean Payton and Brees teamed up in 2006, and stopping one of the NFL’s elite passers would not only add to the win column, but would also help validate the strategies of the new coaching staff.

2. Week 8 “at” Atlanta Falcons

Quotation marks surround the word “at” because this game will be played in London, England, and will air at 9:30 a.m. eastern time. Just one week after the Lions host Brees and the Saints, QB Matt Ryan and his above-average receiving corps will take their shots at the hopefully improved Lions secondary.

What makes this game difficult, especially considering the Falcons only won four games last year? Two main reasons, the biggest being that the game will be played in London, and will require both teams to acclimate to the time change while still preparing to play a tough game of football. Additionally, the Falcons are a popular pick to bounce back in 2014 and return to their 13-3 winning ways of 2012. WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones should both be healthy entering this season, and the team spent all but two of its draft picks beefing up one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2013.

Don’t be surprised to see Atlanta well above the .500 mark when the two teams meet across the pond in October. One thing is for sure, though -- the Lions will have earned their Week 9 bye week after facing two strong offenses in a row.

3. Week 12 at New England Patriots 

This one should be obvious -- so obvious in fact that I almost left it off the list. But this is an article about the tough road ahead, and New England poses the toughest test on Detroit's schedule.

In case you’ve been living under a rock since 2001, the Patriots are a pretty good football team, especially at home. Case in point: Tom Brady. Through 97 home games entering the 2014 season, Brady has won 83 of them and lost just 14. While playing at Gillette Stadium, Brady has thrown 171 touchdowns compared to just 50 interceptions. Even better for the Lions, November is statistically Brady’s best month -- he has more yards, more touchdowns, a higher yards-per-game average and his highest passer rating all in the penultimate month of the year.

Outside of the Golden Boy, Pats head coach Bill Belichick always manages to put forth a dominating team, no matter the personnel or his shady methods of developing a gameplan. The Lions will need to play lights out football and weather the Brady storm if they want to have any chance of knocking off the Patriots in Foxboro.

4. Week 16 at Chicago Bears

While the Patriots are the most difficult team that the Lions will face, nothing will be tougher than Detroit’s home stretch, in which the team faces two division rivals on the road to close out the year. The first of those games will be at Soldier Field against the Bears, where the Lions won last season for the first time since 2007.

If my predictions are correct, both teams will be fighting for a playoff spot, and potentially the NFC North title. Throw in average temperatures in late December that are below freezing with the potential for wind and snow, and the Lions may have another game like their blizzard in Philadelphia last season.

As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, the Bears have reloaded their offense and have taken considerable steps to assess a few glaring issues on defense. We will likely know by the second to last week of the season how well the Lions defense has taken to its new DC’s plans, and ready or not, the unit will have to prove its worth against Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte.

5. Week 17 at Green Bay Packers

Remember last season when the Lions played their last three games and five of their last six indoors, and against beatable opponents? Call it schedule karma I guess, because following their Week 16 matchup in Chicago, the Lions will travel to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to close out their season.

Once again, if my predictions are correct, these two teams will also be fighting for a playoff spot, and possibly the NFC North crown. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and has fared well against the Lions in his career. In 10 career starts against Detroit, Rodgers has thrown for at least two TDs in seven of them, and has avoided throwing an interception in six.

Then there’s the weather. Average conditions for Green Bay on December 28 call for temperatures between 17 and 24 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 49 percent chance of snow and the heaviest winds occurring at the scheduled 1:00 p.m. kickoff. If that wasn’t enough, consider that the Lions have not won at Lambeau Field since December of 1991. Add it all together, and the Lions have one of the tougher finishing stretches in the NFL.

Their strength of schedule may not be terrible, but the Lions will clearly have their work cut out for them if they hope to prove themselves worthy of a playoff spot. Nothing is out of the question -- that’s why they play the game -- but the schedule makers decided to make the Lions truly earn their way to January football.