MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara's Friday Focus: It's time for the Lions to start winning

Posted Sep 6, 2013

Says O'Hara: the Lions have to win games like Sunday's to validate in their own minds that they're the team they think they can be

It's too easy and too convenient to say that it is time for the Lions to stop the losing as they launch another season with the intertwined storylines of hopes and expectations and a combination of trusted old hands and newcomers to shape all the subplots into realities.

No question, the Lions have known more than their share of losing. It is well chronicled in the archives, most recently the 4-12 record and eight-game losing streak that ended last season that sent them into an offseason rife with more rebuilding and roster tweaking than one might have imagined.

The Lions' mindset for the start of the 2013 season, against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field on Sunday, ought to be one of urgency with a singular focus.

It is time for the Lions to start winning.

The Lions have to take advantage of opportunities like Sunday – home-field advantage, a healthy roster, offseason personnel moves that have strengthened the defensive line, secondary and running game – and win.

One man's opinion in the Friday Focus for the Lions-Vikings game: This is one of the most important opening games in the five decades I've covered the Lions. It has nothing to do with what comes later – playing on the road the next two weeks against Arizona and Washington – or anything other than the opportunity at hand.

The Lions have to win games like Sunday's to validate in their own minds that they're the team they think they can be.

"All games in the NFL are important, but you could say it's heightened a little more," said wide receiver Nate Burleson. "This one's a little bit of everything. Being at home, playing against the Vikings, in the division, it's almost a one for two game.

"I don't know if it's one of the most important over years past, but right now, going into this week, it's a big game for us."

A big game, and a tough game, too. The Vikings should go into it with some confidence based on a sweep of last season's two games, but the Lions should start the season winning.

My pick: Lions 23, Vikings 17.

Rush job: The Lions' rebuilt offensive line gets a tough test. The Vikings were tied for fifth in the league last season with 44 sacks, and all of the top rushers are back.

Jared Allen led the rush with 12 sacks from right end. Left end Brian Robison was next with 8.5 sacks. Reserve end Everson Griffen chipped in with eight.

Starting tackles Kevin Williams and Leroy Guion did not get big sack totals, but they anchored a defense that ranked 11th in the league against the run, allowing 105.8 yards per game. The Vikings gave up only 10 rushing TDs and just 6 runs of 20 yards or longer. Only two teams allowed fewer.

Tackles Riley Reiff and Jason Fox and rookie guard Larry Warford are new starters up front for the Lions. Protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford is crucial. He has a quick release, but he needs time and clean passing lanes to perform efficiently.

"Their front's one of the best in the league," said Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. "These guys (the offensive line) are up to it. They've been working hard against a pretty darn good D-line during camp."

2012 review – Calvin vs. Peterson, unhappy returns: Minnesota won both games, and special teams played a key role in the first matchup. Both of Minnesota's TDs were on returns – 105 yards by Percy Harvin with the opening kickoff, and 77 yards by Marcus Sherels on the Lions' first punt of the second half.

Special teams did not play a significant role in a 34-24 road loss in Game 8, but Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson both had big games. Peterson rushed for 171 yards, including a 61-yard TD run. Johnson had 12 catches for 207 yards and a TD with a long reception of 50 yards.

Chess match: An offense can commit a tight end or running back to help block, but the downside to that is that it limits what the offense can do by taking away one player who can get out on pass patterns.

The projected matchup of Reiff at left tackle against Allen is an example of the plus-minus of giving an offensive lineman help. It can come with a cost.

"We get rid of the ball pretty quickly and things like that," Linehan said. "If you keep guys in, they can kind of just play zone and cover the other guys. It's a fine line you've got to play.

"Riley's ready for the challenge. He goes against some pretty good players in practice. It gets him ready for those kinds of guys. Is it going to be easy? No. That's why we drafted him, and that's why he's playing for us."

Holding back: Both teams protected their top offensive players in the preseason.

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson did not play in a game, and wide receiver Calvin Johnson played one quarter. He caught three passes in the first preseason game against the Browns.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier did not play Peterson in the preseason last year when he was returning from a knee injury, and he explained why he exercised the same caution this year.

"He wanted to play, and a lot of people wanted him to play in our preseason," Frazier said. "In 2012, I just didn't see the advantage to playing him. I felt the same way in 2013. I didn't want to risk something flimsy happening like what happened with Kevin Williams."

Williams sustained a knee injury on a low block in the third exhibition game, leaving his status in doubt for Sunday.

First and last: The Lions and Vikings play a book-end series. They meet in the season-opener and again in the last game, Dec. 29 in the Twin Cities.