Dave Dye’s midseason Lions report

If there's skepticism surrounding the Detroit Lions' 6-2 start, it's understandable.

Steven Flynn

Getting a handle on these 2014 Detroit Lions isn’t so easy to do, especially considering the team’s history.

Are they for real this time with a 6-2 start? Or another aberration?

Have you bought in yet — or not?

Only one team in the NFC — the 6-1 Arizona Cardinals — has a better record than the Lions, who are at the halfway point of their season.

Some people have started believing in these so-called "Cardiac Cats," who have won their last two games by one point each in dramatic fashion.

Bleacher Report ranks Detroit No. 5 in the league, third in the NFC behind Arizona and Dallas. ESPN and CBS have the Lions as the sixth-best team overall, fourth in the conference.

Others are a little slower to accept the Lions’ early success. Peter King, of NBC and Sports Illustrated, still has them down at No. 15, tied with Buffalo, behind six NFC teams.

The "Linemakers" power ratings via Sporting News lists the Lions at No. 11 while FOX Sports has them ninth.

Perhaps most revealing are the futures odds at online sports book Bovada.LV, which suggest the Lions are still being viewed somewhat as pretenders by the bettors.

Based on Bovada’s odds, seven teams have a better chance to win the NFC:

Seattle (4-3) is 4/1 to get to the Super Bowl; Green Bay (5-3) is 9/2; Dallas (6-2) and Arizona are 6/1; San Francisco (4-3) and Philadelphia (5-2) are 7/1; New Orleans (3-4) is 10/1; and then Detroit (6-2) comes in at 11/1.

Those odds, however, are influenced by money wagered on the teams throughout the year, including going into the season when expectations were a little different than they are now in some cases.

Of the Lions’ six victories so far, only one has come against a team with a winning record (Green Bay). In fact, the first eight opponents on Detroit’s schedule have a combined record of 25-36-1 as of now.

It’s going to get a little tougher over the final two months. The next eight opponents, including Chicago twice, are currently 31-30. The schedule includes road games against Arizona, New England (6-2) and Green Bay.

If there’s skepticism, it’s understandable. Just a year ago, the Lions were in first place with a 6-3 record only to lose six of their final seven games.

Over the last three years, they’re 15-9 in the first half of the season, 6-18 in the second half. Even during the playoff season of 2011, they were only 4-4 in the final eight games.

At best, Lions fans are probably "cautiously optimistic" in analyzing their team.

"That’s a natural reaction because it’s imploded before," center Dominic Raiola said. "But this is different. This is a new year.

"It’s such a fresh 6-2. None of the coaches (Jim Caldwell and his coordinators Teryl Austin and Joe Lombardi) were here before. The message that we’re getting from coach Caldwell is his own message and really focusing on the task and the day at hand, and not looking ahead of that. So, that’s where it’s different."

The Lions can point to the resiliency they’ve shown in already overcoming so many injuries, including being without star receiver Calvin Johnson the last three weeks and losing middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch for the season, not to mention several others.

They also have to believe their kicking game can only get better after going through a bizarre stretch of ineptness, in which they made 5-of-15 field-goal attempts in the first six games, leaving them on their third kicker of the year in Matt Prater.

A team that was supposed to be carried all season long by its supposedly endless supply of offensive weapons has been totally flipped and is now relying on a surprisingly improved defense.

The question becomes what happens first — does the offense finally put it all together to make the Lions legitimate Super Bowl contenders, or does the defense start to slip and put a playoff berth in doubt?

Johnson and some of the other playmakers on offense are likely to return after the bye week when the Lions play their next game on November 9 against Miami, but now they’re going to be without starting defensive tackle Nick Fairley for probably at least the next few games because of a knee injury.

The fact they proved they could win without Megatron is substantial. That was unrealistic in the past.

"We’re getting these guys that have been inured back, that’s very encouraging," Raiola said of the offense. "When you get the best player in the world back, and you go 3-0 without him…when we get him back at full speed, not limping speed, and he’s not a decoy out there, it’s going to be awesome."

With a one-game lead in the NFC North on Green Bay, which also has a bye this week, the Lions are in position to win their first division title in 21 years.

But there were similar projections about this time a year ago.

The race could look a little different in a few weeks because the Packers play four of their next five at home while the Lions take back-to-back road trips to Arizona and New England right before Thanksgiving.

This team has done its share of teasing over the years, presenting itself as contenders early on only to fall apart and break of the hearts of their fans in the end.

This is different. This is a new year.

Dominic Raiola

Maybe this time it really is different with a new coach, Jim Caldwell, who is calm, cool and collected, even in desperate times.

They’ve got a newcomer in receiver Golden Tate, who played on a Super Bowl champ last year in Seattle and is now emerging as not only the Lions’ MVP but maybe as a long-shot candidate for top honors in the league, too. He’s been that good while on pace to catch 110 passes for 1,600 yards and six touchdowns over the full 16-game season.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford isn’t turning the ball over as much as he did during last year’s late swoon, but he ranks 23rd among starting quarterbacks in QB rating. Stafford unquestionably needs to be much more consistent the rest of the way if the Lions, realistically, are going to finish what they’ve started.

It would help considerably if his offensive line protected him better (24 sacks already) and the run game, ranked 31st in the league with 79.6 rushing yards per game and a measly 3.1 per carry, came to life earlier than the fourth quarter.

A fierce defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh, along with Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker DeAndre Levy, has gotten much of the credit for the unexpected rise to become the league’s top-ranked defense in Austin’s first year as a NFL coordinator.

But the much-maligned secondary has also silenced its many critics, largely because of the steadiness of safety Glover Quin and cornerback Rashean Mathis, who is playing as if he’s in the prime of his career despite being 34 years old and in his 12th season in the league.

Put it all together and the Lions are finding ways to win even with their flaws.

Of their final five losses a year ago, four were by three points or fewer. The inept kicking game led to another three-point loss earlier this season to Buffalo, but the Lions have since bounced back to win three straight, including the last two with stunning comebacks at the end.

They’ve had ups and downs, there are still reasons to doubt them, but they’re making the plays at winning time more often than not.

"I think that’s a part of developing mental toughness, I think that’s a part of the character," Caldwell said of his players’ performance late in games. "You have to have guys that are willing to step up and give you everything they’ve got to get it done.

"If you don’t have mental toughness in this game, you get down by x-number of points and you call it a day, you’re not going to be very good. You’ll be average at best, so we’re trying to get beyond that."

They’ve done it for half a season. Now they have to break the cycle of their franchise’s many failures, and do it again.