The Detroit Lions were the talk of the NFL at this time a year ago.
This was the week leading up to the much-anticipated Monday Night Football home game, a victory over Chicago before a raucous crowd at jam-packed Ford Field to give the Lions their first 5-0 start since 1956.
Lions fans, starving for a winner after decades of frustration, were absolutely ecstatic.
Not so much anymore. They were back to booing during Sunday’s 20-13 loss to Minnesota.
The Lions have played 16 games — 15 in the regular season, one in the playoffs — since that memorable Monday night. They’ve won six. They are 1-3 this season.
The buzz has died down. Talk of a Super Bowl contender has been silenced. Chances to make the playoffs once again look bleak.
The Lions are being called overrated and disappointing.
“We’ve got a lot of football left,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “Nobody talked about the Giants before they won the Super Bowl.”
Nevertheless, once viewed as a possible threat to win the NFC and go to their first Super Bowl, the Lions are no longer even being viewed as a top-20 team in the NFL by many analysts.
The only other projected playoff contender to start this poorly is New Orleans (0-4).
FOX analyst Brian Billick ranks Detroit No. 22 overall, saying, “Outside of the Saints, the Lions have to be the most disappointing team in the NFL.”
NFL.com’s power poll has the Lions tied with Tampa Bay at No. 22. The Sagarin computer ranking also has them at 22.
CBSSports.com dropped Detroit to No. 24 this week. Pro Football Weekly and ESPN.com have a slightly more favorable view, ranking the Lions No. 20.
ESPN, however, added this indictment: “Last year it was penalties. This year, special-teams breakdowns. Discipline is a recurring issue in Detroit.”
And then there’s the website BeyondtheBets.com, which flat-out calls the Lions the NFL’s “most overrated team,” pointing out that Detroit is 3-12-1 against the point spread in those last 16 games, including 0-4 this year.
So what’s happened since that perception-altering 5-0 start, which ultimately carried the Lions to the playoffs?
First of all, they’ve simply come back to Earth.
Opponents have figured out, at least for the time being, how to contain the prolific passing combination of Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. Johnson caught nine touchdown passes in the first five weeks last season. He has one in four games this year, and that was thrown by backup QB Shaun Hill.
Special teams, often a problem for Detroit, have totally fallen apart as of late, giving up both a kick and punt return for a touchdown in each of the last two games, something that hadn’t happened in the NFL since at least 1940.
The defense, despite not allowing a touchdown to Minnesota, remains a concern. Injuries depleted an already suspect secondary to start the season. The Lions are one of two teams with no interceptions. The much-hyped defensive line also isn’t living up to expectations again.
Here’s another element to ponder: That Monday night game before this 6-10 stretch started just so happens to be the last full game played by running back Jahvid Best, who suffered a concussion a week later and still hasn’t returned.
Best is eligible to come off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and play in the sixth game, Oct. 22 at Chicago.
Whether he will be cleared by doctors remains to be seen, but the offense certainly could use his big-play potential. The Lions have zero “explosive” plays (20 yards or more) from their running game.
“He’s a weapon out of the backfield,” Stafford said. “The guy’s really good with the ball in his hand and really good in any kind of man-to-man matchup. He’s definitely a chain-mover for us on third down.”
The Lions, off until their next practice on Tuesday, have time to do a lot of soul-searching during this bye week.
Burleson said he expects the team to “come back refreshed and angry.”
“I think anger should be our biggest emotion for the rest of the season,” he said.
The fans already are angry, and that’s not going to change as long as their team is overrated and disappointing.
To them, 5-0 and the Monday night hoopla seems like so long ago.