The Detroit Lions have to be a healthier, better football team than they were before the bye if they are going to make the playoffs for the second straight season and third time in four years under head coach Jim Caldwell.
The question they have to answer is whether they are the team that soared in the power rankings when they started the season with a 3-1 record or the one that stumbled to the bye with two straight losses.
This week's Monday Countdown is not a prediction column, but a look at what the Lions have to do better to make a run in the NFC North. There is a look at the offense and defense, with stats and personnel issues on both units.
There is also a look at how the NFC North shapes up.
We start with what the Lions must do immediately:
1. Stop the skid: The Lions went into the bye with two straight losses. They don't want to make it three in a row by losing to the Steelers in the first game back. Call it anything you want – academic, cosmetic – being a game over .500 at 4-3 feels a lot better than being a game under at 3-4. And it looks even better in the standings.
As the Lions have shown in losses to the Falcons, Panthers and Saints, the margin for error gets smaller the further you get behind in a game. It's the same for the standings.
Stat fact: The Lions are 3-0 after the bye under head coach Jim Caldwell. It will be a tough chore getting to 4-0 after the bye against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field on Sunday night. But home-field advantage should be an equalizer, at least – even if the Lions have lost their last two at home.
2. Dominate the division: The Lions went 5-1 in the NFC North in 2014, and they have a leg up on doing it again – at least -- with a 14-7 road win over the Vikings in Game 4.
It was their only division game before the bye. There are five left, and even a sweep is doable under the current circumstances. The Packers are without Aaron Rodgers. The Bears are playing with rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky. And the rematch with the Vikings is at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.
Stat fact:The Lions have not swept the Packers since 1991. Rodgers is 7-1 in final games (he sat out one) and 3-0 vs. the Lions, beating them in regular-season finales in 2008, '14 and '16. The Lions and Packers meet again in the final game this year at Ford Field.
3. Handicapping the North:
- Vikings (5-2): Their defense is the single best unit in the division, and could carry them while they sort out their quarterback issues.
- Lions (3-3): It won't take long to prove their worth. Their first two games after the bye are at home against the Steelers and on the road against the Packers.
3.Packers (4-3): No Aaron Rodgers, no division title.
4.Bears (3-4): Like their grit winning at home over Carolina, but they won't win many games like Sunday with five first downs and two defensive TDs.
4. Protect the QB: The offense cannot function at the rate of sacks and hits Matthew Stafford absorbed in the first six games, and neither can Stafford. He was sacked 23 times in the first six games, which puts him on course for 61.3 sacks for the season. That would beat his previous career high of 45 in 2014.
Before the Lions went on their bye Caldwell said correcting pressure issues were "a priority."
Stat fact I:Stafford was sacked once for every 13.4 passes he attempted in 2014. So far this year, it's once every 9.8.
Stat fact II: In the last three games Stafford has been sacked 17 times, and 6.9 times for every pass attempt.
5. Stafford – efficiency:Stafford has said that he did not play his best in the last two or three games. He is the unquestioned leader of the team. If the Lions are going to make something of this season, he has to lead the way – no matter what. He's done it before.
Stat fact:Five turnovers against the Saints – on three interceptions and two lost fumbles – gave Stafford eight for the first six games. He did not have eight turnovers last season until Game 13.
6. Offense focus, running game: Fixing protection is a prime project, but the running game remains deficient and is the main reason first down is the worst down.
The Saints game was another example of how the Lions have struggled to run the ball. Of their first eight runs on first down, only three gained three yards or more – two three-yard runs and a 34-yard run by Ameer Abdullah.
Stat facts:The Lions rank last with 15.4 percent of their running plays gaining first downs and last in average gain of 3.56 yards on all plays. Amazingly, they are 14th– slightly better than average – with a 40-percent conversion rate on third down. More amazingly, Stafford is second in the NFC with a passer rating of 112.4 on third down. He has six TD passes without a pick on third down.
7. Offense, personnel: The return of injured players – some sooner than others – will provide much needed help. Up front, only tackles Rick Wagner and Greg Robinson have started all six games at their position. Left guard Graham Glasgow moved to center for one game when Travis Swanson was out with an injury.
View the best photos of the Detroit Lions offense during the first six weeks of the 2017 NFL season.
The biggest loss has been left tackle Taylor Decker, who has yet to play while recovering from an offseason shoulder injury. His return cannot come soon enough.
It's not just the line that's been hit hard. Golden Tate annually is among the NFL's best at yards after the catch. If Tate is absent for any period because of a shoulder injury sustained in the last game it will take away a playmaker who improvises with the ball in his hands.
Rookie Kenny Golladay's size and speed make him the top option to stretch the field, but he has not played since going out in Game 3 with a hamstring injury. Stafford has shown he'll get the ball to the talented rookie if he's open.
Stat fact: Only Swanson and Glasgow played all 81 snaps in the last game. Five other linemen played at least one third of the snaps because of injuries to starters. Right guard T.J. Lang missed the game with a back injury but has said he expects to be back to face Pittsburgh.
8. Defense focus, sacks: The Lions had only 13 sacks, and that's a little misleading. Five of them were against the Giants in Week 2. Eight sacks in the other five games works out to 1.6 per game.
Despite the absence of sustained pressure, the Lions have held opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 83.8, 11thbest defensively in the league. A lot of that is due to a secondary that is one of the best balanced in the league. There is depth and talent at cornerback and safety.
Stat fact:The Lions have nine interceptions compared to 10 all of last year. The passer rating they've allowed this year is 22.7 points lower than the league-worst 106.5 they allowed last year.
9. Defense, personnel: It remains to be seen how much the bye week helps defensive end Ziggy Ansah. He has been listed on the injury report every week, with limited practice because of a knee injury. Ansah has four sacks, but three were in Game 2 vs. the Giants. He still has not played to his 2015 level, when he made the Pro Bowl with 14.5 sacks.
The Saints' 193 rushing yards and 5.2-yard average indicates that there has to be an adjustment to make up for losing tackle Haloti Ngata for the season.
The Lions cannot afford to lose safety Glover Quin for any period of time. He left the Saints game with a head injury.
10. Make a run:The Lions have made one run – and sometimes two – every season under Caldwell either to make the playoffs or have a respectable season.
In 2014 two four-game win streaks were instrumental in getting the Lions a wild card berth at 11-5.
Last year they won three straight, lost once and won four more in a row to rally from a 1-3 start and make the playoffs at 9-7.
And in 2015, two three-game streaks produced a respectable 7-9 record after starting 0-5.
One more time would be good.
Two more would be better.