They’ve done just that in most of the first nine games with mixed results. Standing at 4-5 entering the FOX America’s Game of the Week against visiting Green Bay (1 p.m. ET Sunday), the Lions must now rally for a postseason berth.
Why it has come to this makes Detroit the NFL’s most enigmatic team.
The Lions are one of just three clubs to rank in the top 10 statistically on offense and defense. There’s continuity with 39 of the 53 players on this year’s roster here last season when the Lions ended a 12-year playoff drought. All three coordinators are back on head coach Jim Schwartz’s staff. There’s a franchise quarterback (Matt Stafford), franchise wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) and one of the NFL’s top defensive lines.
Yet this is a squad that has put together only two complete games in victories over Jacksonville and Seattle.
The Lions had the preseason earmarks of being 7-2 or 6-3 by this point. Detroit middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch told FOXSports.com that he “thought the same thing.”
“Obviously, it takes all three phases to get this thing going,” Tulloch said after Wednesday’s practice at Lions headquarters. “One week, it will be the offense doing good. The next week, it will be the defense. Sometimes, all three phases do good.
“We have to find a way to put it all together. When we do, we’re rolling.”
No team has rolled better in the fourth quarter than the Lions when it comes to scoring (118 points) and yards (1,438). This helped lead to comeback victories over St. Louis, Philadelphia and Seattle.
Detroit has needed such late heroics because it has been outscored, 129-95, through the first three quarters. Sometimes, the deficits have proven too great to overcome.
“You can look at our slow starts a lot of different ways,” Schwartz told FOXSports.com. “We start slow, but the team battles and finds a way to stay in it until the very end. Whether you’re scoring early or putting it away late, (the games) all count the same.
“We don’t really worry about style points or grading on a curve. The only thing is our record. The last two Super Bowl winners were 7-7 going into the last two weeks of the year. There’s plenty of time for us to do something, but our margins are a lot thinner when you’re 4-5.”
Stafford is well aware.
“We’ve just been up and down,” he told FOXSports.com. “We lost a couple games early that we felt we could have won. Every one of these counts.
“It’s tough when you put yourself in a little bit of a hole and have to battle back. But this team’s resilient, man. You see the effort out here (in practice) after losing a tough division game on the road (against Minnesota). We had a chance to get above water and go 5-4 and didn’t get it done. But there’s no hiccup in the stride. Guys are pushing for this week and know it’s another opportunity.”
There is no easy answer to explain Detroit’s roller-coaster ride. Injuries have riddled the secondary, but the Lions still rank ninth against the pass in yards allowed. Johnson is playing hurt and has only scored twice, but he still leads the league in average receiving yards per game at 108.3.
During his weekly news conference, Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan used a basketball analogy to explain why his unit could be “pressing a little bit” because of its early struggles.
“It’s like trying to get a three-point shooter to get hot early in the game,” Linehan said. “If he’s worried about the ball going in, then it’s probably not.”
Maybe there’s more to Detroit’s airballs than execution and talent. The Lions had a rough off-season with multiple player arrests that embarrassed the franchise and cast further light on the team’s penchant for personal-foul penalties in the Schwartz era.
The maturity issues might not end there.
“Last year was the first playoff berth (since 1999), and we’ve got to handle success,” said Tulloch, a seven-year veteran who joined Detroit in 2011. “We’ve got to find a way to build on that and know that every year is different. You’ve got to stay consistent in this league and keep striving and never get comfortable.”
Detroit can’t afford to get comfortable now, especially with six of seven upcoming games against teams who would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. The Lions, though, do play five of their final seven at Ford Field.
Stafford said a three-game home stand that begins Sunday against Green Bay (6-3) is “a great way to catch fire.”