As you know, we've been running a MegatronWatch for much of 2011 to track Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's assault on the NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season. Johnson will need 12 more in the second half of the season to tie, and 13 to break, the record of 23 set by Randy Moss in 2007.
Moss caught 12 in the final eight games of that season, and John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information looked into just how he did it. Quite simply, the New England Patriots gave him an overwhelming opportunity as they pursued a 16-0 regular-season record.
The Patriots targeted Moss on 95 passes, including 25 in the end zone, over that final eight-game stretch. For comparison, the Lions targeted Johnson 74 times, including 10 in the end zone, during the first half of 2011.
Typically, NFL passing games tend to be less proficient as the weather turns in November and December. That means Johnson will need to be more efficient than Moss to approach the record, unless the Lions significantly change their target structure. Already, they are throwing a hefty 9.25 passes per game in his direction.
The chart shows how quarterback Matthew Stafford has split his throws among the Lions' top five pass-catchers this season. (In the video at the bottom of this post, or soon to be, I tried my best to quell your concerns about receiver Nate Burleson's quiet first half.) The Lions' stable of receivers and pass-catchers provides Stafford with credible alternatives to forcing the ball Johnson's way, as evidenced by his four interceptions in 299 attempts.
The Lions' second half will open Sunday against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, and it's worth noting the Bears did a decent job for most of their Week 5 game against Johnson. Locking against cornerback Charles Tillman for a good portion of the game, Johnson had six passes thrown his way. Johnson caught five of them, and the Lions capitalized on a rare occasion when the Bears tried to cover him with two safeties -- a play that ended in a 73-yard touchdown.
Skill and good fortune are necessary ingredients for raising the bar on history. So is opportunity, and in the end, that's what could determine whether Johnson has a great season or a record-breaking one.