October 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Josh Katzenstein

Monday breakdown: Lions set up for playoff run; next two games will be revealing

Matthew Stafford needs to prove himself against higher competition. He'll get that chance in the next two weeks. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Few games merit as much of an overreaction as the Lions' win Sunday in Cleveland.

But the truth is, the Lions (4-2) have set themselves up perfectly for a run at the postseason, and we should have a much better grasp on just how good this team in after the next two games.

With division leaders Cincinnati (4-2) and Dallas (3-3) coming to Ford Field the next two weeks, the Lions have a chance to prove they can hang with any team in the NFL.

When the 2013 schedule came out, these were the two non-divisional games many pointed to because if the Lions took care of business in the first six games, wins over the Bengals or Cowboys would show they're capable of beating a playoff-caliber team.

Remember, quarterback Matthew Stafford is 1-23 in his career against teams that finished the season with a winning record, and these two games are perfect opportunities for him to show he can beat good teams.

The Lions have essentially won all the games they should've won so far this season. They won both home games as well as road games against Washington, with a porous defense, and Cleveland, which is stout defensively but lacked the potency on offense to hang with the Lions.

Now, the Lions play six of their next 10 games at home, and one of those road games is against the 1-4 Steelers.

If the Lions simply manage a split against the Bengals and Cowboys, they can head to the bye week at an impressive 5-3 and rest up for a crucial division game in Chicago in which they could improve their NFC North record to 3-1, a mark that would guarantee at least a .500 finish in the division.

In Sunday's 31-17 win over the Browns, the Lions completely flipped the script from 2012. Too many times last season, the Lions would jump out to a lead only to see the offense stall in the second half while the defense opened the flood gates.

Instead, the Lions outscored the Browns 24-0 in the second half -- with an ailing Calvin Johnson -- and washed away their lackluster first half.

But in dissecting the game further, it appears the Lions have all the makings of a team ready to make a run at the postseason.

The leadership provided by middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and Stafford -- through a forceful, penalty-earning spike -- is a luxury the team didn't really have last season.

As Tulloch pointed out multiple times in 2012, the Lions had 26 players facing free agency, and although it didn't fracture the locker room, several players focused on their individual play last season. Now, though, it appears all the Lions are focused on the system, and no man is bigger than the team.

The team's singular focus explains why Tulloch's halftime speech inspired the Lions so much after a pitiful first half Sunday.

"He came in after the first half and spoke a couple words," safety Louis Delmas said. "I'm not going to pinpoint what it was, but he spoke to us and for some reason, each and every individual felt like that one person, Stephen Tulloch, was talking to them. I think we all got the message and went out in the second half and didn't want to prove him wrong."

Tulloch wouldn't explain exactly what he told the team, but he essentially called the players out for not playing to their potential, which was appropriate after the Browns opened a 17-7 lead.

The Lions’ offense then had its way against Cleveland's top-10 defense in the second half while the Lions’ defense held the Browns to just 145 yards.

Rookie tight end Joseph Fauria's play is also a reason for optimism. It's far too early to start comparing him to other tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and the like, but Fauria looked truly unstoppable on his three touchdown catches.

If the Lions utilize Fauria correctly moving forward -- as in give him more than 23 snaps -- he and Johnson (as well as 6-foot-6 Kris Durham) will make life miserable for opposing defenses while opening more holes in the running game.

The Lions of 2012 probably would've folded after their first-half performance Sunday. But with the ease with which this team came back in Cleveland, the Lions look like they will be fighting for a playoff spot the rest of the way.

Around the NFC North

* Few wins come at as hefty a price as the Packers' 19-17 win in Baltimore Sunday. Wide receiver Randall Cobb left in the second quarter with a right knee injury, and returned on crutches, though reports indicate it may not be as bad as it appears. Meanwhile, fellow receiver James Jones (left leg) left the game in the first quarter.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers can carry the Packers by himself quite a bit, but if Cobb and Jones miss any time, it will make life that much more difficult. Linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) is already out for a month, and with the Lions and Bears both at 4-2, the injury-plagued Packers need to be perfect to keep pace in the division.

* The Bears kept things interesting Thursday night in a 27-21 victory over the winless Giants, but a win is a win. Regardless of the final score, it's worth noting the Bears didn't have a single turnover after some costly ones during their two-game losing streak. Now the Bears travel to Washington for what should be an easy win.

* I hope you're ready, Josh Freeman. Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel had a chance to stake his claim to the starting job, but in an embarrassing 35-10 home loss to the Panthers, Cassel threw two interceptions and had a passer rating of just 74.1 The Vikings have yet to make an announcement, but they clearly signed Freeman to play. Now at 1-4, Minnesota needs to find some type of spark.

Around the NFL

* We're at a point in the season where some coaches are playing for their jobs. Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano might have been able to save himself with some victories in the wake of the Freeman debacle, but the Bucs have stumbled to a 0-5 start. It's only Schiano's second year, but typically, young coaches need to provide reasons for hope and he has yet to do so.

* Down in Houston, coach Gary Kubiak could soon be a scapegoat for the Texans' 2-4 start. While it's not his fault Matt Schaub -- and T.J. Yates Sunday -- prefers throwing passes to the opponents, the coach deserves flak for a team that scores just 17.7 points per game (26th in the NFL) while allowing 29.5 (28th).

As long as we're mentioning the Texans, allow me to remind fans that football players are mere mortals. Don't cheer when someone gets hurt, especially at home.

* Giants coach Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but his seat is heating up, too. New York (0-6) is off to its worst start since 1976, when the team started 0-9. Coughlin, 67, has earned the right to go out on his own terms, but that time may be coming soon.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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