Lions establishing themselves as contenders in NFC North
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – You can go from pretender to contender, and vice versa, awfully quick in the NFL.
The Detroit Lions (3-1) are one of only four teams in the NFC who have reached the quarter point of the season with one loss or fewer.
It’s still early, but it’s quite a difference from last year when they lost their final eight games to finish 4-12.
First and foremost, the Lions are 2-0 against NFC North teams – victories over Minnesota and Chicago – heading into another division game this Sunday at Green Bay.
A year ago, the Lions were 0-6 against their division rivals.
There’s work to do before they can be considered legitimate contenders for their first division title since 1993, but coach Jim Schwartz is encouraged by some of the early trends.
“We show some signs that we can get some turnovers on defense,” Schwartz, whose team has 11 takeaways and a plus-4 turnover margin through four games, said during his Monday news conference. “That was a point that was lacking last year.
“We also have some explosive ability, not just in our pass game, which we always have, but in our run game (Reggie Bush rushed for 139 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown, in Sunday’s 40-32 victory over Chicago).
“We’re going to have ups and downs and things we have to deal with. We’ve been battled tested in a lot of ways (coming off last year’s struggles). We’ve been through some rough spots and I think we can lean on that as we go forward. I like the personality of our team when it comes to dealing with the inevitable adversity that comes for all 32 teams in the NFL.”
The Lions’ opponents over the final 12 games currently have a combined record of 15-31.
That includes only one team (Chicago at 3-1) with a winning record.
Games that might have appeared to be potential losses in the preseason – at Pittsburgh (0-4), at Philadelphia (1-3), vs. Baltimore (2-2), vs. New York Giants (0-4) and at Minnesota (1-3) – suddenly seem much more winnable.
Schwartz laughed when he was told that the Lions had a 21-19 record over the last 40 regular-season games compared to 4-36 the previous 40.
“We don’t carry around any banners saying we’re 21-19,” he said.
Nevertheless, a few early-season wins in the NFL can change perceptions.
Skeptics around the nation are starting to come around to this team. Call it cautious optimism.
“We’re in an absolute race right now to try to correct mistakes, plug in for injured guys, find out things we can rely on, things that we’re good at,” Schwartz said. “Every team in the league is the same way.
“We’re at the quarter pole. There’s still a lot of race to be run. The guys that are going to do well over the last three--quarters (of the season) are the guys who can deal with all those things.”
The Lions can take another big step forward – perhaps make a statement that they’re definitely more like the 10-6 team in 2011 than last year’s debacle – by winning at Green Bay.
The Packers (1-2) appear more vulnerable than in the past, but winning at Lambeau Field remains a mystery for the Lions.
They’ve have lost 22 straight on the road to the Packers. Nineteen of those losses have been in Green Bay and the other three in Milwaukee.
The last victory came in 1991 in Green Bay when Detroit’s rookie offensive guard Larry Warford was 2 years old.
“It would certainly be a big win for us,” Schwartz said. “We certainly want to end the streak. But that’s not our rallying cry. Our rallying cry is Green Bay and division game. Those are things that mean more to the players.”
The update on cornerback Chris Houston didn’t sound all that promising in terms of playing this week.
Houston left Sunday’s game with a leg injury.
“We’ll just see where he can get to this week,” Schwartz said. “We’ll try to get him back as quick as we can, but if he can’t then we’ll have next guy up. That’s what we do in this league.
“At this point, it doesn’t appear as though it’s more than day to day, week to week, but we’ll wait and see.”
Rashean Mathis, the other starting cornerback, could be back after coming out of the Bears’ game because of concerns that he suffered a concussion.
“He came in, worked out this morning and didn’t have any symptoms,” Schwartz said. “He passed his initial concussion test. He was never diagnosed with a concussion on the sideline. During the game, there was question of whether he was concussed. Our people decided to error on the side of caution there.
“We feel pretty good about where he is right now. We’ll see how it goes the rest of this week.”
Darius Slay (second-round draft pick this year) and Jonte Green (sixth-round draft pick last year) filled in for Mathis and Houston on Sunday.
--- Schwartz scoffed at suggestions from the Bears that their former teammate, Israel Idonije, now a defensive end with the Lions, helped tip off their defensive calls to the Detroit offense.
“I really think that’s ridiculous,” Schwartz said. “I think it takes away from the players that are on the field.
We rushed for a lot of yards because we blocked them and Reggie Bush broke tackles.
“I like to concentrate on the players on the field and what happened on the field, not stupid stuff like that. I really don’t think it had any impact at all on the game.”
--- Schwartz, on some apparent hits to the head by the Bears, including one against Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson:
“There’s a lot of things that happen in the NFL. We tend to get scrutinized on every single play. People look with fine-tooth combs to find plays like that against us, but it happens on the football field. I don’t think anybody’s trying to hit guys in the head.”