Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/5/12
Building off of their 5-0 start to the 2011 season, the Lions have held their playoff fate in their own hands most of the 2011 season. After some mid-season struggles the Lions prepare to begin their first trip to the playoffs since 1999 and also attempt to win their first postseason game since 1991 when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round 38-6. Here are questions they face as they prepare for Saturday evening’s playoff showcase game against the New Orleans Saints.

1. Will Ndamukong Suh make playoff opponents put the words TRIPLE team in their game plan?

On New Year’s Eve Ndamukong Suh tweeted that his resolution was, “to make teams put the words TRIPLE team in their game plan!!!” This weekend would be a good start with Drew Brees as the opposing quarterback. In the week 13 game, Suh was serving the first of a two game suspension for his dance on the arm of Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Rookie Nick Fairley picked up a sack filling in at defensive tackle for Suh that game but aggravated a foot injury he had been struggling with all season. The most dramatic impact of Suh’s absence was on the play of defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril. Going into that game Vanden Bosch had six and Avril seven sacks for the season. That Sunday night Vanden Bosch didn’t make his first tackle until the third quarter and Avril didn’t make the stat sheet.

If Suh, and the others on the Lions’ defensive line play like they did week 17 against the Packers, they’re going to get carved up on Wild Card Weekend by Drew Brees and the Saints. If Suh plays to his potential Brees will find room to step up in the pocket greatly reduced and force the Saints to make decisions on how to slow the outside pass rush of Vanden Bosch and Avril. The Kansas City Chiefs showed the effectiveness of pressure on an elite level passing game when they pressured Aaron Rodgers enough to hang the only loss on the Packers for the season. If Suh is on his game it will make a direct impact on the next question to be answered by the Lions in this season’s playoffs.

2. Matthew Stafford has led this team to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, can he get them into the Super Bowl (and win it) for the first time in franchise history?

2011 was Matthew Stafford’s third season in the NFL and first one where he started all 16 games. Stafford threw for over 5,000 yards this season with a team of receivers that can rival anyone’s in the league. He led the Lions to a No. 4 ranking in the NFL with a 29.6 points per game scoring average. Stafford’s passing statistics rank with the best in the game, including Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, the current gold standards for elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

The Stafford to Calvin Johnson receiving combo exploded on the NFL scene right from week 1. They teamed up for eight touchdown passes in the first four weeks of the season and finished the season with 16, one behind league leader Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. The rest of Stafford’s regular targets, receivers Nate Burleson and Titus Young plus tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are all tall and have reliable hands. They very rarely drop an easy pass and often pull in catches that other receivers would have troubles reaching. That’s how Detroit has been able to move the ball consistently on offense this season without a consistent running game.

3. Will the Lions show enough maturity to extend their postseason run past Wild Card Weekend?

On week 12 the Green Bay Packers visited Detroit for the first of the three games to be played on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions outplayed the Packers the entire first half but went to their locker room down 7-0. Every trip into Packer territory was turned back and stopped by penalty, not the Packers’ defense. On the first drive of the third quarter Aaron Rodgers began finding the range in the passing game and drove the Packers to the Lions’ three yard line. On third down the Lions defense broke up a pass and it appeared the Packers would be held to a field goal, until Ndamukong Suh was called for a personal foul and ejected from the game in an action that’s been replayed repeatedly since then. The Packers took advantage of their new life on offense and punched it in for a touchdown to take control of the game on their way to a 27-15 victory.

That wasn’t the low point for the Lions in undisciplined play though. The following week on Sunday night the Lions played the Saints tough but sabotaged themselves repeatedly by penalties directly stemming from a lack of discipline. A number of holding calls nullified big plays, Nate Burleson was called three times for offensive pass interference and three personal fouls were committed right in front of officials. The Lions finished the game with better statistics than the Saints in almost every category but couldn’t overcome the 11 penalties for 107 yards they amassed.

At the end game post-mortem head coach Jim Schwartz made it clear that he’d seen enough and that dead-ball penalties (personal fouls), would not be tolerated and the offenders benched. The Lions did improve after that game until their season finale against the Packers where they were flagged 11 times for 101 yards.

The Lions can move the ball as well as any offense in the NFL but their ability to only play their opponents and not beat themselves at the same time will give them a chance to do more than play a Wild Card game Saturday night. The Lions are on the verge of growing from playoff contenders to be included in the talk of possible Super Bowl teams every season. Their ability to take that step will depend a lot on whether they can address the questions raised above in a positive way, starting Saturday night.
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