MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Sunday's game is a chance for Lions to show their true value as contenders

Posted Nov 15, 2013

For skeptics and admirers alike, the Lions can prove that they have reached a point where they take advantage of teams that they’re expected to beat

The Lions have caught the eye of the national media, and for the right reasons.

Winning and star power draw attention, and the Lions have both going for them in their drive to win the division. They are winning games, with a 6-3 record that has them first in the North, and their stars are performing with strong contributions from role players.

Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh against a Steelers team that is last in the AFC North presents an unlikely opportunity for the Lions to strengthen their grip on the NFC North after climbing to the top with two straight victories over the Cowboys and Bears.

The Steelers are used to winning division titles, not being a stepping stone for contenders. For skeptics and admirers alike, the Lions can prove that they have reached a point where they take advantage of teams that they’re expected to beat.

Brian Billick, the coach of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and a Fox TV network analyst who has worked a handful of the Lions’ games this year, sees Sunday’s game as a chance for the Lions to show their true value as contenders.

"We’re going to find out this weekend," Billick said in an interview on ESPN. "That’s why I think this is such a big game. Where the Detroit Lions have faltered a little bit before in losing to teams they should beat. They should beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and get themselves a road win.

"Detroit, if indeed they are that team – and I think they are – they have got to win this game. They’ve got Tampa Bay next week at home. They’ve got to have those two games – whatever it is going forward -- to establish they are the lead in the NFC North, and that they are who they appear to be."

Billick’s points are well taken, but the NFC North will not be decided Sunday. It is paramount that the Lions play well and not slide back to an old loser’s fault of getting satisfied and congratulating themselves to soon.

This year’s team has shown none of those traits. It’s been mentally tough and committed to playing 60 minutes of every game. The players haven’t gotten distracted from the attention they’ve gotten.

"The team, when they leave here, they just sort of ignore all the other talk that goes on and concentrates on the next opponent," head coach Jim Schwartz said. "I think we have a good personality that way."

The Lions have turned a corner this season, but there’s a long run ahead.

My prediction for Sunday: Lions 33, Steelers 20.

One more step toward winning the North.

Little by little: It isn’t only big plays that make a difference. So is a chain of little ones.

Safety Glover Quin sees results in small details for the Lions. Last week, he made one of the small plays that turned out to be huge. He ripped the ball loose from Bears’ receiver Alshon Jeffery on what could have been a fourth-quarter TD catch in the end zone. Instead, Jeffery bobbled the ball as he went out of bounds, and the Bears had to settle for a field goal.

There were other plays last week that might have seemed small at the time.

"A lot of little plays that happen through the course of the season lead to winning and losing," Quin said. "You look back at that game, we had a ton of little plays that ended up being big plays for us and helped us win that game.

"It adds up. You win a game by two points, you win a game by one point -- all those stops count."

Steelers matchup focus: "They Like Ike," and for good reason.

Cornerback Ike Taylor is matched up regularly against the opposing team’s top receiver, and Taylor has won most of the battles. If the Steelers follow the same pattern, Taylor will be on Calvin Johnson Sunday, assuming Johnson is healthy enough to play.

Bengals receiver A.J. Green has drawn favorable comparisons to Johnson, and Taylor limited him to six receptions out of 14 targets and 41 receiving yards. In four games against the Steelers, Green twice had one catch and twice had six.

In a loss to the Bears in Week 3, Taylor and the Steelers’ secondary made Brandon Marshall look like their little nephew. Marshall had five catches for 52 yards. Marshall had a long reception of 41 yards. His other four catches netted 11 yards.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t think stopping Green automatically means winning the matchup against Johnson.

"A.J.’s a talented young receiver, but Calvin’s in the prime of his career," Tomlin said in a conference-call interview with the Detroit media. "He’s a much bigger man. He presents a different set of challenges."

Roethlisberger raved about Johnson when asked his opinion of him.

"Exceptional," he said. "I don’t know him well off the field. I have run into him before, but everything I’ve hear is that he is just a great person, a great guy.

"He is truly one of the freaks of the league -- obviously the numbers can speak for themselves, but he is one of the best to play the game at his position."

Series history: The Steelers have a 15-14 series lead, with one tie and a 9-2 won lost record against the Lions at home. They are 2-0 at Heinz Field. The Lions’ last win at Pittsburgh was 31-28 in 1955. The teams played a 10-10 tie in Pittsburgh in 1958.

STATS PACK

Steelers rankings: Offense – 27 rushing, 11 passing, 15 total; Defense – 29 rushing, tied 4th passing, 11 total.

Steelers’ key stats: They rank 31st with a minus-11 turnover differential – 18 giveaways and only seven takeaways. Despite negative yards created by 35 sacks of QB  Ben Roethlisberger, they’re 14th in third-down conversion rate at 39 percent.

Quarterly report: The Steelers have been outscored 64-19 in the first quarter and 67-57 in the fourth.

Lions’ rankings: Offense – 21 rushing, 3 passing, 6 total; Defense – 8 rushing, 27 passing, 24 total.

Lions’ key stats: They rank 14th with a plus-1 turnover ratio – 14 takeaways, 13 giveaways. Last four TD drives covered 80, 85, 66 and 74 yards and took 6, 12, 5 and 9 plays.

Bush is grand: Reggie Bush ranks sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 966 and needs 34 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark.

Bush’s average gain of 5.8 yards per play is the highest of any running back in the league with at least 100 rushes and receptions combined.