Lions look to get back to .500

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.

Madden curse?

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.

INJURY REPORT
 
Safeties Louis Delmas
(knee) and Amari Spievey (concussion) have been ruled out for the Lions.
Ricardo Silva and Erik Coleman likely will start in their place.
 
Johnson is listed as
questionable, but he’s expected to play despite missing practice all
week. Linebacker DeAndre Levy (hamstring) also is questionable.
 
For the Jaguars,
cornerback Rashean Mathis (groin) and safety Dwight Lowery (ankle) are
out. Cornerback Derek Cox (back) is questionable.