ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Lions are alone in first place, and their top competitors in the NFC North have been floundering.
It’s an opportunity for the Lions to win their first division title since 1993 — but their outlook could change awfully quickly if the next few weeks go badly.
"Confidence is building, but one thing we know about the league is, it will humble you," defensive lineman Kerry Hyder said.
The Lions play three of their next four games on the road, starting this weekend at New Orleans. With road games against the New York Giants and Dallas also coming up, there are plenty of potential pitfalls awaiting a Detroit team that is in this position only because of its success in close games.
The Lions (7-4) haven’t had a game decided by more than seven points all season. They’ve won enough of them to take a one-game lead over Minnesota in the division, and Detroit has the tiebreaker over the Vikings after sweeping them. But the Lions have room for improvement in all phases.
"Like anything else in our system, we can get better," coach Jim Caldwell said. "We can get better defensively. We can get better offensively. We can get better in our kicking game."
Detroit has had its share of chances recently to end its division title drought. In 2011, the Lions won their first five games, but they finished 10-6, well behind Green Bay. In 2013, the Lions were 6-3 and in sole possession of first place. The Packers were dealing with major injury problems, but Detroit lost six of its last seven games, costing coach Jim Schwartz his job.
The following season, the Lions went 11-5 but lost a showdown at Green Bay in a regular-season finale that decided the division.
Detroit has won six of its last seven after beating Minnesota on Thanksgiving , and the Vikings have dropped five of six. Green Bay is below .500. If the Lions win two of their remaining five games, that might be enough to keep them in first place. They have home games against Chicago and Green Bay still to come.
The road games will be tough, though, starting with Sunday at New Orleans.
"Obviously Drew (Brees) has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league for a long time, pretty prolific. Those guys have been together," Caldwell said. "He’s been in the same system."
The Saints (5-6) aren’t in great shape in the playoff race, but unlike Minnesota, New Orleans has been playing fairly well lately . The Saints have won five of eight since an 0-3 start.
New Orleans has scored at least 32 points in six of its 11 games. Detroit has reached that total only once.
"They have a powerful offense," Hyder said. "They can run the ball well, they can throw the ball deep well. As a defense, we’ve got to bring our lunch pails."
NOTES: TE Brandon Pettigrew, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament late last year and hasn’t played at all this season, spoke for a bit in the locker room Monday. He did not rule out the possibility of returning this weekend. "We’ll see where it goes. I’m not going to say for certain," he said. … The Lions signed TE Logan Thomas to the practice squad and released LB Brandon Chubb from the practice squad.