The window of opportunity is open for the Detroit Lions to make something of the 2020 season, but it can slam shut at any moment with the curtains drawn if they repeat their performances of the first four games.
There is a welcome softening of the schedule as the Lions return from their bye week to play the last 12 games of the season. It starts with road games against Jacksonville and Atlanta,
Both are struggling and offer the Lions a chance to get to .500 with a 3-3 record. That would be something of an accomplishment after a 1-3 start and the manner in which is was crafted. The Lions squandered double-digit leads in losses to the Bears, Packers and Saints.
This week's Monday Countdown looks at the final 12 games, and the Lions' win formula for each game.
It's not a prediction column, but more of a mandate on what they must do to get into playoff contention.
For the record, my preseason prediction was for the Lions to make the playoffs as a wild card with a 10-6 record. The opening-day giveaway to the Bears reduces the maximum possibility to a 9-7 record.
Also for the record, based on the first four games it is far less likely that the Lions will get to 9-7 than when the 10-6 prediction was made before the start of the season.
Here is a look at the Lions' final 12 games:
Week 6, at Jacksonville: A lot of the Jaguars' good players have been dealt away. The offense has been good with Gardner Minshew at quarterback. The defense, not so good. The Lions have had an extra week to figure out a way to stop Minshew.
Lions' win formula: Play this game like it's the last chance to save the season. Because it probably is. That means playing with energy.
Week 7, at Atlanta: The Falcons were expecting better after two straight 7-9 records. Instead, they got worse. The Falcons have been able to score, but they can't stop anybody.
Lions' win formula: Do what Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did in shredding the Falcons' pass defense in a Week 4 win: 33 passes, six incompletions, four TDs. Do what he did.
Week 8, home vs. Indianapolis: Veteran quarterback Philip Rivers was signed to lift the offense. Rivers has been a game manager, which is all the Colts need with a defense that stops the run and pass and doesn't give up many points.
Lions win formula: Score early and often and force the Colts to play catchup. That puts the pressure on the Lions' defense to step up and protect the lead.
Week 9, at Minnesota: Kirk Cousins lost a big-time playmaker when Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo. He still has a big-time running back in Dalvin Cook. He's special. At least Everson Griffen has moved on and won't be around to make life miserable for Matthew Stafford.
Lions win formula: Stop the run game and get pressure on Cousins to force mistakes. The Vikings have beaten the Lions' five straight.
Week 10: home vs. Washington: While the Lions were on their bye, Washington head coach Ron Rivera benched 2019 first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins and promoted Kyle Allen to the starting job. Allen was 5-7 as a starter under Rivera in Carolina last year after Cam Newton went out for the season.
Lions' win formula: Allen threw 17 TD passes against 16 interceptions in 2019, but he's more likely than Haskins was to challenge the secondary.
Week 11, at Carolina: The Panthers did not collapse after All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey went down with an ankle injury in Week 2. They won two straight under quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the defense picked up the pass rush.
Lions' win formula: Do something they haven't done since 1999 – beat Carolina on the road.The Panthers have young pass rushers in rookie Yetur Gross-Matos and second-year player Brian Burns.
Week 12, home vs. Houston: This is a shell of the team that made the playoffs four times in the last five seasons, beat Buffalo in the wild card playoff round last year and had a 24-0 first-half lead over the Chiefs in the divisional round. That turned into a 51-31 loss.
Lions win formula: The nation is watching on Thanksgiving Day. No matter what else happens, win the day.
Week 13, at Chicago: Even when they were 3-0 and with a quarterback change – from Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles – there wasn't a lot of respect for the Bears. Foles is a stop-gap quarterback without a lot of support save for wide receiver Allen Robinson.
Lions' win formula: Play like they did for the first 45 minutes in Week 1 to get a 23-6 lead – and keep it up for another 15. The Lions played more good ball overall in that game than the Bears did, but a 15-minute lapse resulted in a loss that could haunt them for the entire season.
Week 14, home vs. Green Bay: The Packers and Lions have something in common. They're both on a bye this week. The Packers are sitting comfortably on a 4-0 record. The Lions are anything but comfortable on their 1-3 record.
Lions' win formula: Control the ball, stop the run, keep Rodgers in check and don't give up anything cheap.
Week 15, at Tennessee: Assuming this game is played on schedule, the Titans' offensive balance with a strong running game hits the Lions where they've been hurting.
Lions win formula: Make the Titans win with their passing game.
Week 16, home vs. Tampa Bay: Tom Brady has started the season playing like he's 33, not 43. With so many options available to him, he might be playing like he's 23 when this game comes around.
Lions' win formula: They held Brady to 133 yards passing, one TD and one pick, in 2018. But he was 41 then. And now ... forget it. There is no formula for stopping Brady, even Father Time has thrown in the towel.
Play hard, play smart, and anything can happen.
Week 17, home vs. Minnesota: If there is anything on the line for the Lions in this final game, it will mean they have turned their season around to get into playoff contention.
That means playing for a wild card. The NFC North title is likely out of the question for both teams. No one is catching the Packers.
Lions' win formula: Take advantage. Period. Take advantage of playing at home. Take advantage of saving a season – and a lot of other things that would go with it.
Not saying they'll do either, but they can answer a lot of questions if they seize the opportunity – if it's there.