O'Hara's Monday Countdown: Win at Jacksonville has Lions creating fresh air again

Posted Nov 5, 2012

Dead even is better than being dead, and the Lions have strolled into the company of the NFL's walking living by getting their record to 4-4 at the halfway point of their season.

They don't have the best chance to get one of the NFC's six playoff berths. It would take a colossal collapse for any of the four division winners to miss the playoffs. The Giants (6-3), Falcons (8-0), 49ers (6-2) and the Bears (7-1) in the Lions' very own NFC North are in solid shape.

But below them, the wild-card race is open - wild and open, really - and the Lions are at least at the starting line for the second-half dash.

Coaches like to break the 16-game schedule into quarters, and the Lions had to work to get to the break-even level because of their shoddy play in the first quarter. They were 1-3, with two giveaway losses - 44-41 on the road to the woeful Titans in Game 3, and 20-13 the next week at home to the Vikings.

A reversal in the second quarter - a 3-1 record capped by Sunday's 31-14 wipeout road win over hapless Jacksonville - has the Lions breathing fresh air again.

This isn't the time to hand out trophies or make guarantees, but the Lions deserve credit for making a turnaround. They recognized who their fiercest rival was - themselves - and fought to defeat it.

The Lions of the second quarter didn't give away touchdowns on special teams, fumbles and interception returns like the Lions of the first quarter did.

The Lions of the first quarter might have blown the game at Jacksonville. No way that was going to happen to the Lions of the second quarter. They were relentless and merciless in treating the Jaguars like they didn't belong on the same field with them.

This week's Monday Countdown focuses on how the Lions are positioned to make a playoff run - their own strengths, weaknesses and the challenges confronting them. There is also a look at the legitimate NFC contenders. It takes a minimum of four wins to qualify as a legitimate contender at this point.

There is also the best and worst of the NFL after Week 9. Look to see where Alabama fits.

We start with the Lions, and the biggest obstacle they face:
1. Rough finish: No team has a tougher finishing schedule than the Lions. Starting with Sunday's game at Minnesota, Arizona (4-5) is the only opponent in the last eight that currently has a losing record.

Aside from the Cardinals, who have lost five straight after a 4-0 start, it's the NFC's version of murderer's row.

In order, the Lions play at Minnesota (5-4), home to Green Bay (6-3) , Houston (7-1) and Indianapolis (5-3), at Green Bay (6-3) and Arizona (4-5), and home to Atlanta (8-0) and Chicago (7-1).

The combined opponents record for the last eight games is 48-20, counting Green Bay twice.
2. Good part of the second-half schedule: five games are at home.
3. Bad part of the second-half schedule: It's brutal. Atlanta, Houston and Chicago are a combined 22-2. The Packers are on a roll with a four-game winning streak, and the Colts have won three straight and four of the last five.

On Dec. 9, the Lions play at Green Bay, where they haven't won since 1991. That was a year before Brett Favre was a Packer.
4. The crucial game of the second half: All of them, but it starts next week at Minnesota. The Vikings are on the skids, dropping from 4-1 to 5-4 by losing three of the last four and the last two. Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has been awful of late.

In the last three games, Ponder has had passing yardage totals of 58, 251 and 63 yards, for a total of 372.

In that same span, running back Adrian Peterson has rushed for 458 yards - 86 yards more than Ponder has gained with his arm.

When a running back is out-gaining a quarterback, a team has real problems. And the Vikings have real problems.

The Lions need to get an advantage on teams competing to be a wild card, and they can do that head-to-head with the Vikings with a win on Sunday.

However, the same holds true for the Vikings. A win would make them 6-4 to 4-5 for the Lions, and give them a sweep of the season series.
5. The Lions' biggest concern, not counting the schedule: Calvin Johnson, and no player or anything else comes close.

His performance against Jacksonville was heroic - seven catches for 129 yards while playing on an injured left knee .

Johnson said the knee bothered him so much that when the team left town Saturday, he didn't know if he would be able to play on Sunday.

Starting with the Minnesota game, the Lions play three games in 12 days - Sunday games against Minnesota and Green Bay, and the traditional Thanksgiving Day game against Houston.

There has to be serious doubt as to whether Johnson's knee can hold up under that much stress.
6. The Lions' greatest strength, not counting home games: Matthew Stafford, and depth.

Stafford is the rock of the offense, which is the case with any good quarterback. His leadership ability is felt by the entire team. He is so cool under pressure that the Lions never feel that they're out of a game.

The Lions have built depth through the draft, modest free-agent signings and trades.

They have depth at positions such as running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and linebacker. And the play of the secondary, which has been battered by injuries, has been better than anyone could have expected.

Questions about draft picks the last two years were legitimate, but Mikel Leshoure, Titus Young, Riley Reiff, Ryan Broyles and Jonte Green have been playing well in important roles.
7. Rating the NFC division leaders: I don't see the Giants, 49ers or Falcons falling out of first place in their divisions. They're too good.

The Bears, at 7-1, aren't a lock to win the North but they won't collapse enough to miss the playoffs. And the Packers are right behind to pounce if the Bears falter.
8. Rating the NFC wild-card contenders: Between the Bears and Packers, one team will win the North and the other will be a wild card.

Realistically - at this point, anyway - that leaves one wild card spot open. Here's how the field of contenders with at least four wins shapes up:

Minnesota (5-4): Sinking because of Ponder's shaky play at quarterback. Losing to Seattle and Tampa Bay hurts the Vikings as a wild card because it gives the other two a tiebreaker advantage.

Seattle (5-4): Strong defense and running back makes them dangerous, but the big question is whether rookie QB Russell Wilson is consistent enough for the long haul of a playoff drive. Four of their last seven are at home, and Seattle is a real home-field advantage.

Tampa Bay (4-4): Coming off a bye, the Bucs have rebounded from bottoming out at 3-13 last year. Josh Freeman got himself in shape and looks like a good young quarterback again. Playing Atlanta twice and at Denver in the last eight make it difficult to finish better than 9-7.

Arizona (4-5): Five straight losses after starting 4-0 and having no quarterback and a porous offensive line leave the Cardinals with almost no hope.
9. The Eagles and Cowboys: They aren't included as contenders, but both warrant - not deserve - a mention because it's as if they're the NFL's version of the Kardashians. Even if you don't want to watch, they're shoved in your face, anyway.

The Eagles are 3-4 going into the Monday night game at New Orleans. If they win, they'll be 4-4 and in the race, but they're a bad team. Michael Vick is a turnover mill at quarterback, and the defense is ordinary.

The Cowboys are 3-5 after a tough loss Sunday night at Atlanta. They're America's most analyzed, self-important, under-performing losers, ahead of even the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The Eagles and Cowboys play twice in the last eight weeks. They have a real chance to split and eliminate each other. Sweet mercy.
10. How the Lions can get a wild card: It starts with Sunday's game at Minnesota. Beat the Vikings, and they'll have an edge on one contender. They already own the tie-breaker on Seattle.

By my estimate, the NFC's second wild card will get in at 9-7. The three easiest opponents the rest of the way are the Vikings, Cardinals and Colts. Winning those three gets the Lions to seven wins. They have to find two more at least, and three to be sure at 10-6.

One win is not likely to come at Green Bay. That leaves home against Green Bay, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago - all at home, and all among the best in the NFL.

For sure, it's a tough road to the playoffs, but not something I would bet against with this team.
11.   The NFL's best

1.  Falcons (8-0): Beat the Cowboys without playing their best.
2.  Texans (7-1): The Bills made them work to win Sunday.
3.  Bears (7-1): The Titans are awful, but a 28-2 lead after one quarter was impressive.
4.  49ers (6-2): Coming off a bye - and Alex Smith's best game as a pro.
5.  Packers (6-3): A four-game win streak could have them headed to the Super Bowl, but injuries are a concern.
6.  Ravens (6-2): Patching together an injured defense.
7.  Giants (6-3): The Steelers crunched their offense and defense Sunday.
8.  Patriots (5-3): Went to the bye on a two-game win streak.
9.  Broncos (5-3): In the last six games, Peyton Manning has 17 TDs and three picks.
10. Steelers (5-3): Road win over Giants puts them in top 10.
11. Colts (5-3): Andrew Luck is a young Peyton Manning – but more athletic.
12. Seahawks (5-4): They're 1-4 on the road, 0-3 in the NFC West.
12. The NFL's worst:

6. Panthers (2-6): Beat Washington to end five-game loss streak.
5. Browns (2-7): They play hard but lack talent.
4. Titans (3-6): Not the worse record, but no team has been outscored by more – 126 points.
3. Chiefs (1-7): Scott Pioli's regime crumbled fast.
2. Jacksonville (1-7): Got to admit, while they were getting wasted by the Lions, I wondered how they'd do against Alabama.
1. Alabama – OK, this is a joke, sort of. I just want to get in my opinion that Alabama would get blown out by the NFL's worst team.