MONDAY COUNTDOWN: The biggest opponent the Lions will face the rest of the way out is themselves

Posted Nov 11, 2013

Sitting atop the NFC North at 6-3, the Lions are now the team to beat in their division

Reggie BushRB Reggie Bush finished with 105 rushing yards at Chicago. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

The world has turned on the Lions, and whether they are prepared to turn with it will go a long way toward determining whether they're a team that made a nice midseason run to get to the top of the NFC North, or if they really are built to hold their lead all the way to the tape.

It's one thing to be viewed as a contender on the rise, but there's more pressure sitting on top with a target on your back.

That's where the Lions are after Sunday's 21-19 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. They're first in the NFC North with a 6-3 record. With seven games left, they're the team the rest of the division is aiming to beat.

I've written that this year's team is better than the 2011 team that made the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 record, and that the Lions were set up to win the North. Now they're sitting in the driver's seat.

This week's Monday Countdown looks mostly ahead at what faces the Lions in the last seven weeks, starting Sunday at Pittsburgh. There are some stats that show where the Lions' strengths -- and weaknesses -- are, how Matthew Stafford stepped up to support his offensive coordinator, a look at how the perception changed on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and the best and worst of the NFL after 10 weeks.

And, for those who keep asking, there's a look back at the last time -- for the last time -- on where the Lions stand.

But we start with the key issue facing the Lions:

1. Boring, boring, boring: That was pretty much the drone in interviews after Sunday's game. There was no chest-thumping, no demands for respect, no proclamations of attaining a goal of holding first place alone in the NFC North.

The Lions were happy about the way they played, but the message from everyone – from Coach Jim Schwartz on down – was that there is more work to be done.

We'd all like some bodacious quotes about burying the Bears and planting the Lions' flag on the 50-yard line at Soldier Field, but the reality is that there is a lot more work to be done.

How the Lions handle success the rest of the way is as important as any matchups they face in the last seven games. The 2011 season was an exception for a franchise that hadn't been to the post season in 12 years. They deserved to enjoy the ride, and the celebration at Ford Field when they beat the Chargers in Game 15 to clinch a playoff berth.

But it was clear in 2012 that the Lions thought they'd arrived, and that Game 1 was simply an extension of the 2011 season. And they arrived, all right – in last place with a 4-12 record. It should have been predictable.

There is a different psyche this year from Schwartz on down. Nothing gets taken for granted. Schwartz been consistent in every detail, from how he handles reporting injuries, to Sunday's comment that no team clinches a division title "nine games into the season."

He's right. But nine games into the season, the Lions have put themselves in great position. There is a maturity and growth on this team that puts them in shape to handle the long run to the finish.
2. Strength of schedule: Rating the strength and weakness of the remaining schedule changes from week to week, and sometimes from play to play.

The Packers, who come to town on Thanksgiving Day, are an example. Two weeks ago, the Packers were the most daunting team on the schedule with a matchup on Thanksgiving Day that most likely would determine who wins the North.

Then Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, leaving Seneca Wallace to play quarterback. Then Wallace went out with a severe groin injury, putting the offense in the hands of Scott Tolzien, a third-year quarterback who'd never thrown a pass before entering Sunday's game against the Eagles after the injury to Wallace.

Suddenly, the Packers are on a two-game losing streak and skidding out of contention in the North. Maybe Rodgers will return in time to rescue the season – perhaps even by Thanksgiving Day. Maybe he won't.

The point is that strength of schedule changes from week to week, and nothing can be counted on to remain the same. Pro football is a game of attrition, and the health of key players favors the Lions. For now.
3. The last seven: For the Lions, it starts with the Steelers on Sunday. They're 3-6, but playing against Ben Roethlisberger is a scary proposition. He can extend plays because of his size and strength, and the Lions' secondary has trouble sustaining coverage.

After that comes Tampa Bay (0-8 going into the Monday night game vs. Miami) and Green Bay (5-4 and a void at quarterback) at home, a road game against the Eagles (5-5), home games against the Ravens (4-5) and Giants (3-6), and the finale at Minnesota (2-7).

Only Tampa Bay is a certain win. The Packers are the Packers, no matter who plays quarterback. Remember Matt Flynn's six TD passes in the last game of 2011?

The Eagles have worked their way into a tie for first in the NFC East. The Giants have won three straight. The Ravens can rush the passer and are in sniffing distance of the AFC lead. And Adrian Peterson might rush for 300 yards in any given game.

The Lions' toughest opponent in the last seven: themselves. Major injuries aside, handle success, and they win the North.
4. The spread: The Vegas line for Sunday's game favored the Lions by 2.5 to 3 points. That means the Lions have opened as favorites in nine of the first 10 games. The exception was Game 5 at Green Bay, when the Lions played without Calvin Johnson in a 22-9 loss.
5. Stafford speaks: Stafford made a pointed reference to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan after Sunday's game, and it came without being prompted. It wasn't an answer to one of those "what do you think about Linehan?" questions that would get a predictable answer.
The Lions gashed the Bears with their running game, getting 145 yards on 26 carries. Reggie Bush led the way with 14 carries for 105 yards. Bush had three carries on the first six plays of the game-clinching TD drive, and had gains of seven, 11 and 11 yards. On the first series of the second half, Bush had a 39-yard run.

Both drives were finished off by TD passes to Johnson.

Stafford talked about how sticking with the run helped open some passing lanes because of the way the Bears play their safeties.

"It helped us in the passing game, straight out of the gate," Stafford said. "Go after them. I loved it. He (Linehan) called it from the hip and let us go after it."

6. Lions middle men: Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley dominated the interior Sunday. Each one had a sack and four quarterback hits. As a unit, the defense had 11 quarterback hits, the two sacks and five tackles for loss.

Up front, Willie Young had two pass breakups, and Suh had one – a deflection that DeAndre Levy caught in the end zone for a drive-ending interception in the final minute of the first half.

As a result of the interior domination, the Bears' running game produced 38 yards on 20 runs. Matt Forte was held to 33 yards on 17 carries.

In the first game against the Lions in Week 4, Forte gained 93 yards on 14 carries, including a 53-yard TD run.

7. Stafford's personal protectors: On the flip side, while Jay Cutler and Josh McCown – who replaced Cutler for the final possession – were getting battered, Stafford was hardly touched.

Don CareyS Don Carey stepped in to provide critical depth at Chicago. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

On 35 drop-backs, the Lions did not give up a sack or a quarterback hit. And that was with two rookies on the right side of the offensive line – guard Larry Warford and tackle LaAdrian Waddle.

The Bears also had two rookies on the right side of their line. The Lions clearly won that matchup.

8. Cornerbacks: That has to be a concern going forward. Teams target rookie Darius Slay, who barely played after a tough first half, and veteran Rashean Mathis was beaten twice for TD catches.

I was against bringing in Nnamdi Asomugha, who was released last week by the 49ers. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Lions should think about it again.

However, as of today, 31 other teams – including the 49ers – haven't thought he has enough left to help them win.

9. The last time: The last time the Lions were in first place alone after nine games was 1999. They started 6-2 and lost the next two games, to get to 6-3 and 6-4. At 6-3, they led the old NFC Central alone on Nov. 14, 1999 after a 23-19 loss at Arizona.

The eventual division champ Tampa Bay Bucs were in second place at 5-4. The Vikings were 6-4 (with a bye in Week 11). The Packers were 4-5 and the Bears 4-6, also with their bye coming.

The Lions ended that season with four straight losses but squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card at 8-8. They squeaked out with a 27-13 loss at Washington.

10. Cutler: He was universally ripped for sitting out the second half of the Bears loss to the Packers in the 2010 season's NFC Championship with a knee injury. Cutler's heart and sideline demeanor were questioned, and players on other teams openly criticized him.

On Sunday, the question was whether Bears Coach Marc Trestman hurt the team by keeping Cutler in the game too long, when his mobility was compromised because of a groin injury.

Play or not play, quarterbacks are open to criticism. It goes with the territory – tender territory, in Cutler's case Sunday.
11. The NFL's best after Week 10:

1. Chiefs (9-0): Big game coming at Denver after the bye. Chiefs' D vs. Peyton Manning's arm.
2. Seahawks (9-1): A power team on both sides, and a QB (Russell Wilson) good enough to win.
3. Broncos (8-1): Manning didn't like getting hit low in Sunday's win over San Diego.
4. Saints (7-2): Yes, the offense was great against the Cowboys, but the defense allowed only nine first downs.
5. Panthers (6-3): The front seven on defense has led their five-game win streak.
6. Patriots (7-2): Rested from their bye, they'll make another run to win the AFC East.
7. Lions (6-3): But as Jim Schwartz said, it doesn't matter.
8. Colts (6-3): A 38-8 loss at home to the ragged Rams came out of nowhere – they hope.
9. 49ers (6-3): Last year's NFC champs are holding on as a wild card. Colin Kaepernick has 4 TD passes in the last five games.
10. Bengals (6-4): They've made it a race in the AFC North – unfortunately for them.
11. Jets (5-4): Strong defense and running game might get a wild card.
12. Packers (5-4): Their history tells me they won't collapse.

12. The NFL's worst:

5. Bills (3-7): Three-game losing streak, and about a nine-quarterback loss streak. So it seems.
4. Falcons (2-7): Looks like they've given up.
3. Texans (2-7): Seven straight losses. Too much talent for that to happen.
2. Jaguars (1-8): Beat the Titans. Now they can go 1-15 quietly.
1. Bucs (0-8): The mess at Miami gives them a chance for a Monday night win. Not many chances left.