The great debate in football this week hasn’t been whether the Detroit Lions can beat the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It’s whether a powerhouse college team, No. 1 Alabama, can beat the lowly 1-6 Jags.
The consensus is that ‘Bama wouldn’t have a chance, but it’s a different story for the Lions, who are four-point favorites for Sunday’s game at Jacksonville.
Here are five storylines to follow:
• Is this the week Matthew Stafford finally throws a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson?
Jacksonville’s secondary is beat up and will be without at least two starters.
That sets up the perfect scenario for Johnson to dominate, except for one thing -- he has been slowed by a knee injury himself lately.
Stafford and Johnson connected for 16 touchdowns last year, including nine in the first five games.
Through seven games this season, they’ve been shut out. Johnson has one TD, thrown by backup quarterback Shaun Hill.
“Teams aren’t going to let you do the same thing you did to them last year,” Johnson explained. “We received a lot of one-on-one coverage in the end zone, where we’d just go up and dunk on people.
"You’re not going to be able to keep on doing that. Teams aren’t going to let you keep on doing that.”
Johnson has been uncharacteristically dropping passes, including one for a touchdown last week. He has seven drops on 48 catchable balls, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and his rate of dropped passes (14.6 percent) is fourth highest in the NFL.
Even though he's been the target of more passes overall compared to last year, Johnson seemingly has become a decoy much of the time in recent weeks.
He made it clear that's not in his plans.
“I guess you can have an impact being a decoy, but I want to have an impact with the ball in my hand,” he said.
Maybe this is that game.
• How much longer can the Lions’ defense, with a depleted secondary, continue to hang in there?
If you subtract the touchdowns allowed on two punt returns, two kick returns, one interception return and one fumble return, the Lions are giving up just 18.9 points per game.
Not too bad for a suspect defense that has been hit with injury after injury on the back end.
The Lions have been fortunate because they haven’t faced any of the league’s high-profile pass offenses. Consider where their opponents so far rank in passing yards per game: St. Louis is 25th, San Francisco 28th, Tennessee 16th, Minnesota 27th, Philadelphia 15th, Chicago 30th and Seattle 31st.
That good fortune continues for at least one more week, too. Jacksonville is No. 32 in passing offense, dead last in the NFL.
• After digging a 1-3 hole in the first quarter of the season, Detroit can finally get back to .500 with a victory.
A 4-4 record doesn’t sound like anything special, but it would help put the Lions back in position to make a playoff run.
There are a lot of home games still to come, albeit against several of the league’s marquee teams.
After next week’s game at Minnesota, the Lions will have played six of their first nine on the road.
They finish with five of their last seven at Ford Field, but those home games include Green Bay (5-3), Houston (6-1), Atlanta (7-0) and Chicago (6-1).
Another bad defeat -- such as losing to Jacksonville -- would be costly, if not devastating, to this turnaround.
“After the 1-3 start, this was our goal, to get to .500 after the second quarter of the season,” offensive guard Rob Sims said. “If we can get it, we’ll feel like we’re back on track.”
Cornerback Chris Houston added of Sunday’s game: “It means everything. It means we’ll be in the hunt.”
• One of the biggest keys to the Lions’ offense running smoothly seems to be the timely contributions from tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
Pettigrew dropped too many passes earlier in the season that stopped drives, but he came back against Seattle with one of his most productive games.
Pettigrew made seven catches for 74 yards, including three on third down to extend drives.
“He’s a big-time chain-mover, a guy on third down that’s winning matchups against linebackers and safeties and D-ends trying to drop and cover him,” Stafford said. “You start getting open, you start making catches, you start feeling good and it keeps going.”
Pettigrew was bothered by sore knees earlier, but his health is apparently improving.
“I think he’s getting to where he’s feeling better, and you could see that last week,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “When we’re in that kind of zone offensively, when we can go to the big fella in the middle of the field, that usually really pays off for us.”
Said Pettigrew: “It was definitely good to get out there and make some plays, make some key third-down receptions. You’ve always got to have confidence in everything you do, but it definitely reconfirms that and helps you keep your head right.”
• Jacksonville is 0-3 at home, getting outscored 95-20. That includes a 41-3 loss to Chicago.
The Jaguars actually have been much more competitive on the road, going 1-3 with two of the losses coming in overtime.
The Jags even held Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a season-low 185 passing yards in last Sunday’s 24-15 loss in Green Bay.
“That I’m baffled about,” Jaguars first-year coach Mike Mularkey said of the odd home-road discrepancy. “You’d like to be that team that people don’t like to come into your stadium.”
Besides the losses in the secondary, the Jaguars are also without standout running back Maurice Jones-Drew (foot injury).
Jacksonville ranks last in the NFL in scoring, total offense, passing offense, first downs and third-down percentage.
The Lions simply cannot blow this opportunity to get back to .500. If they do, they might never get back there again this season.