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Broncos can’t afford to overlook feisty Lions led by an outstanding rookie class

The Lions’ record may not be pretty, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a team to be worried about.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions have built a team that embodies all the blue-collar football stereotypes you can think of: gritty, physical, fundamental, scrappy, and tough. Most importantly, they are well-coached, and they play 110% in every game. At 1-10-1, their season is virtually over (despite a 1 in 1 trillion shot to make the playoffs). They’re playing for pride (pun intended) and to end on a positive note with some momentum.

Which means the Denver Broncos can’t afford to slip up and overlook them like the Vikings did. Unfortunately, Denver has already done so this season, which makes this game all the more important. If Denver wants to have a chance at the playoffs, it starts with coming in and beating Detroit.

Easier said than done. Detroit may be 1-10-1, but they’ve kept it close in several of their games. They lost to Chicago and Cleveland by a combined 5 points, tied the Steelers, lost to Baltimore by 2, and lost to the Rams in LA by 9. The Lions played the Packers tough till the 4th quarter, and lost by 8 to the 49ers.

These results aren’t just happenstance or the product of luck. They’re playing good football, but missing a few splash plays and enough top-end talents (and a quarterback) to tip those losses into wins. They make up for that by playing some fundamentally sound, physical, and tough football-on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for Denver, they’ve been outmuscled by several teams with that same mentality.

Detroit’s led by a fantastic rookie class. Both George Paton and Brad Holmes have hit enough home runs so far with their draft classes they could have a derby between them.

Detroit drafted one of the best tackle prospects in recent memory in Penei Sewell. He started off at left tackle with Taylor Decker hurt, then flipped over to right tackle against Pittsburgh. In his first start at RT against the Steelers (and TJ Watt), Sewell didn’t allow a single pressure or sack. He’s held up fairly well against some tough competition that are definitely better pass-rushers than what Denver’s equipped with.

Sewell is one of the best tackles the Broncos will play-and he’s just a rookie.

Their next two picks, DTs Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill, are two pretty stout tackles in their own right. Both have flashed as pass-rushers, but mainly do their damage in the run. They work through double-teams and rarely get driven out of lanes. Denver’s interior is really going to have to dig deep and generated push upfront with Shurmur’s affiliation for inside zone runs.

4th-rounder Derrick Barnes has also played lights out in the run game. He has a great nose for the ball, and plays fast with some good instincts and athleticism. Barnes takes on blocks so well, and consistently stops the run. He’s still a work in progress in coverage, but there’s enough on film that make him intriguing and a name to watch.

5th-round WR Amon-Ra St. Brown has been a bit of a darling after an inexplicable draft day fall. He’s missed time due to injury, but recently he’s burst onto the scene and has started to build a bit of a highlight reel for himself-including the game-winner over the Vikings.

The player who surprised me the most on film was UDFA CB Jerry Jacobs. Being a UDFA corner playing for the Lions, one could imagine how there’s little buzz about him. Yet, he’s put together quite the surprising resume for the team, and he brings it. He’s smart in coverage, and generates a ton of plays. In the Vikings game, it felt like he was making big plays on almost every drive.

In all honesty, on paper this is a game where the Broncos probably end up with the win. However, they have to show up for this game. There’s sneaky upset potential here that would effectively shut Denver out of the playoff race and in all honesty dooms this coaching staff.

If the upset does occur, it’s on the back of this rookie class that just might begin to change the future of the Detroit Lions.