Pretty much everywhere you look for NFL previews — from data-based simulations to educated guesses in countless publications — you’ll find a consensus that the NFC North is going to be a tight three-team race between the Bears, Packers and Vikings, all of whom have the chance to be above-average but not necessarily elite.

But I came across one site — a respected one! Football Outsiders! — a couple weeks ago that sees the NFC North differently. After rubbing my eyes constantly and rechecking several times to make sure I was not deceived nor was FBO hacked, I am here to report that Football Outsiders sees the NFC North as a four-team race.

And they have the Lions as the slight favorites.

Granted, it’s by the slimmest of margins: an average of 8.3 wins for the Lions in Football Outsiders’ 50,000 simulations using their DVOA ratings, while the Bears are at 8.2 and the Vikings and Packers are each at 8.0.

But when everyone else seemingly says the Packers, Vikings and Bears are good for 8-10 wins and the Lions are headed for more like 6 or 7 wins, that’s a significant outlier.

(It should be noted that these projected standings don’t include Thursday Night’s 10-3 Packers win over the Bears, which ensured that Americans got the greatest night of sleep in years).

In casually asking Aaron Schatz, the head of Football Outsiders, about the Lions on Twitter, he admitted he was surprised as well but added some context as to why the Lions might be better than many expect.

Indeed, the Lions were minus-5 in turnover differential last season, finishing in the bottom-10 in the NFL en route to a 6-10 record. Two years ago the Lions were plus-10 and finished 9-7. The year before that they were minus-1 and also finished 9-7.

Teams in the same division play almost identical schedules except for two different opponents. By virtue of their last-place finish in last year’s NFC North, the Lions play the Cardinals and Buccaneers while the other three NFC North teams, at least on paper, have harder games against teams from those divisions.

And last year’s Lions were 1-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including 1-3 in games decided by 3 points or less).

Add it up and FBO gives the Lions a 27.7% chance to win the NFC North and a 41.1% chance to make the playoffs, both tops among division teams.

Compare that to, say, ESPN’s Football Power Index — which gives the Lions just a 9.2% chance to win the division and a 17.7% chance to make the playoffs — and FiveThirtyEight (14% and 23%, respectively) and it’s quite a difference.

But while we shouldn’t put too much stock in what looks like a clear outlier, we shouldn’t ignore it, either. Maybe this will be a four-team race, and at the very least we shouldn’t overlook the Lions.

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