Preview: Lions have injuries, ineffectiveness

The Lions were leading the division halfway through the season, but their late-season collapse has them looking for answers before they go on their extended vacation. We take an in-depth look at what has gone wrong (or right) at each of the positions for Detroit.

As the Vikings close out the Metrodome, they do so against a franchise that has been one of the hard-luck stories of the NFL in the Detroit Lions. The last time the Lions won the NFC North was in 1993 when it was the NFC Central and had five teams in the division.

It appeared as though 2013 was going to end the Lions' 20-year division championship drought when the Lions went into Chicago Nov. 10 and came away with a 21-19 win, improving Detroit to 6-3 and putting the Lions in sole possession of first place with Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers, the Bears without Jay Cutler and the Lions with a two-game sweep over the Bears that put them in the driver's seat for a division title.

But, as has happened so many times over the years, the Lions have a tendency to collapse late in the season, turning a dream season into a nightmare. This year has been no exception. When the four NFC North teams take the field Sunday, the division title will be on the line, but it will be 8-7 Chicago facing 7-7-1 Green Bay for the championship. After losing five of their last six games, the Lions have officially been eliminated from playoff competition, a bitter pill to swallow since three of those losses have come at home and two of those losses have been to long-since-eliminated playoff hopefuls Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.

The Lions are led on offense by quarterback Matthew Stafford. He has thrown more passes than any other player over the last three seasons. With his ninth pass Sunday, it will be his 2,000th pass in three seasons – an astronomical number that even Drew Brees and Tom Brady can't match. He has thrown for 4,433 yards and 28 touchdowns, but also has 19 interceptions and, when they come, they tend to come in bunches. He's only been sacked 18 times, but his decision-making, especially late in games, has been suspect and one of the primary reasons why the Lions are out of the playoff hunt despite a prolific offense.

One of the missing ingredients prior to this season in the Lions offense was a strong running game. There was a revolving door of backs in recent years, none of which established himself as a go-to reliable running back. That has changed this year with the signing of Reggie Bush. He has bounced around from New Orleans to Miami, but has found a home in Detroit. He needs just 26 yards Sunday to top 1,000 rushing yards, is tied for second on the team in receptions with 49 for 473 yards and has scored six touchdowns. But perhaps the bigger surprise has been the role of Joique Bell, who has replaced Bush twice when he has missed time due to injury and has earned his spot on the field as Option 1B in the Detroit backfield. He has rushed 158 times for 619 yards, caught 49 passes for 523 yards and scored eight touchdowns. He has been more of a scoring threat than Bush and the two comprise a formidable tandem that will be around for the next few years.

Just as Vikings fans have marveled at their first pick in the 2007 draft, so have Lions fans with their 2007 first-rounder Calvin Johnson. Nicknamed Megatron, Johnson is an incredible specimen with a rare combination of size, strength and speed. Despite consistently draw double and triple coverage, Johnson has caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards – a whopping 17.8-yard average and has 12 touchdown receptions. He is as dominant as any receiver in the game and is capable of singlehandedly taking over games, but he didn't practice all week with a knee injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Former Viking Nate Burleson is back as the primary complementary receiver on the other side. Burleson missed time after a bizarre pizza-related car accident sidelined him, but he's back and providing a viable alternative. Young receivers Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross provide depth, but, with as much as the Lions throw to their running backs, the backup wide receivers don't see a lot of action. They may have to this week, because this week they placed tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Dorin Dickerson on injured reserve, leaving rookie Joseph Fauria as the only experienced tight end left on the roster. He does have seven touchdown receptions, which represent almost half of his 15 receptions on the season. The Lions will struggle to run two-tight end sets at all Sunday, which could be a pass-rush advantage for the Vikings.

The offensive line was expected to be a problem, considering that former Pro Bowler Jeff Backus retired and right tackle Riley Reiff was moving to the left side. Compound that with rookies at right guard (Larry Warford) and tackle (LaAdrian Waddle) and it could have been a recipe for disaster, but, of all the bad things that have happened to the Lions this season, the play of the offensive line isn't a primary culprit. Waddle has been ruled out of Sunday's game with an ankle injury, but the line has been pretty consistent and played through injury issues during the year without a drop-off. They have helped balance an offense that is averaging 4.1 yards a carry and have allowed just 18 sacks.

The strength of the Lions moving forward is likely going to be centered on a young, ferocious defensive front that has the potential to be as dominant as any D-line group in the NFL. With first-round draft picks Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle and Ziggy Ansah on the outside, they have a formidable front. The three of them have combined for 18 sacks and, along with Willie Young, the Lions are strong up front and can not only shut down the run but also terrorize quarterbacks.

The Lions have struggled in the back seven of the defense. Linebackers Ashlee Palmer, Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are all veterans – all in their fifth season or more – but haven't been consistent in plugging gaps or in coverage. Levy hasn't practiced all week but is expected to play. In the secondary, the only home-grown product is fifth-year man Louis Delmas. As has been their history, the Lions acquire cornerbacks on the free-agent market, often turning backups into starters with mixed results at best. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston and safety Glover Quin all fit that description. While they have veteran savvy and are capable of making plays, none of them is an elite athlete that offensive coordinators fear. Houston will test the depth of the CB roster because he is listed as doubtful on the team's injury report.

The Lions have the look of a team that is built to make a short-term run at a Super Bowl. They have a mix of young talent and veterans and have built up both sides of the ball at critical positions. But, as the team closes out the 2013 season, the players will have to ask themselves how they squandered a golden opportunity to run away with the NFC North title and instead know that there season ends with the clock hitting :00 in the fourth quarter Sunday.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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