October 28, 2013 at 1:00 am

Josh Katzenstein

Monday breakdown: Lions far from perfect but should cruise to playoff spot

Calvin Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yards with 821. He's averaging 17.5 yards per catch -- fifth-best in the NFL. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Pass the crow. Let's eat.

Before the season, I figured there was no way the Lions could win more than seven games, largely due to last year's 4-12 meltdown and what appeared to be a gaudy schedule, so I settled on a 6-10 prediction.

After being idle this week, the Lions (5-3) should win their sixth game in Week 10 against a Jay Cutler-less Bears team.

And frankly, besides the Thanksgiving game against the Packers, the Lions' remaining schedule resembles that of most Big Ten non-conference slates, with Green Bay being the only team remaining with a winning record and four games against teams that currently have two or fewer wins.

The Lions should be favored in every game except the Packers game, and while the oddsmakers aren't always right, the Lions should be able to easily reach 10 wins with 12 being a legitimate possibility.

Either way, this is a team that should be going to the playoffs, and if they beat the Packers on Turkey Day, the Lions could win the division. That game is a test the Lions may not overcome, but Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson proved Sunday that anything is possible in the NFL.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let's keep Sunday's 31-30 thriller over Dallas in perspective. The Cowboys were without starting running back DeMarco Murray, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety J.J. Wilcox. In addition, guard Brian Waters, cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church all left Sunday's game early.

But in the NFL, a win is a win no matter who is or isn't on the field.

Even if the Lions settle for a wild card spot, they're in position to win enough games to earn the five seed and a matchup against the "winner" of the NFC East, a dream matchup compared to the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers or Saints.

But the Lions players and coaches aren't thinking about the playoffs. They focus so heavily on the upcoming game that players were told last week not to discuss the team's 2014 trip to London in advance of Sunday's game against the Cowboys.

After Johnson's 329 receiving yards, second most ever in an NFL game, he made a key point to NFL Network. Johnson said the Lions are a team of guys who play for each other, which has certainly proven to be the case through eight games.

All season the defense and offense have picked each other up when one is struggling, which was never more necessary than Sunday. Off the Lions’ four turnovers, the Cowboys scored just 10 points. When the Lions’ defense gave up 17 points in the fourth quarter, the offense responded with 24 in the final stanza.

It's also worth noting that rookie Sam Martin, with punts of 64 and 59 yards Sunday, has flipped the field enough times this season to take pressure off both sides.

Stafford is still going to make some mistakes -- and his second interception right to linebacker Sean Lee was a giant one. The defense is still going to give up a lot of points -- the unit ranks 20th in the NFL, allowing 24.6 points per game.

The Lions may need another receiver if Ryan Broyles (Achilles) is in fact done for the year, but Nate Burleson's return could alleviate that concern. They will still have some costly penalties -- they had eight for 61 yards Sunday -- and in their remaining games, they may play down to the competition.

The Lions are far from perfect, but they have enough talent and desire to overcome some of their flaws. And as they march toward the playoffs this season, it's going to be a fun, nail-biting ride.

LIONS REMAINING SCHEDULE

Nov. 10: at Chicago, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 17: at Pittsburgh, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 24: Tampa Bay, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 28: Green Bay, 12:30 (Fox)

Dec. 8: at Philadelphia, 1:00 (Fox)

Dec. 16: Baltimore, 8:30 (ESPN)

Dec. 22: N.Y. Giants 4:05 (Fox)

Dec. 29: at Minnesota, 1:00 (Fox)

Around the NFC North

* Dominant doesn't even come close to describing the Packers’ 44-31 win over the Vikings Sunday night. Green Bay (5-2) scored on every possession in the game. Aaron Rodgers was nearly perfect, going 24 of 29 for 285 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver Jordy Nelson (seven catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns) appears capable of carrying the load as long as Randall Cobb and James Jones are out.

But what was most impressive Sunday was the Packers’ rushing attack. Rookie Eddie Lacy ran 29 times for 94 yards and a score, and James Starks ran seven times for 57 yards and a score.

* On the other side of that game, the Vikings (1-6) looked terrible, and if not for rookie Cordarrelle Patterson's touchdown on the opening kickoff, the score would've been much worse. Minnesota needs a quarterback, and Josh Freeman, Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel are not the answer. At least the Vikings’ schedule is tough enough that they'll be in prime position to take a top quarterback in the draft.

* The Bears had a bye, but without quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs, their upcoming Monday night game in Green Bay won't be close.

Around the NFL

* The Cardinals broke the curse. Before their 27-13 win over the Falcons Sunday, every team that had played the Seahawks lost its next game. Running back Andre Ellington had 154 yards and a score on 15 carries in the win and may be in the Rookie of the Year conversation at the end of the year. With a bye week, then games against Houston and at Jacksonville, the Cardinals will remain in the postseason hunt as long as quarterback Carson Palmer doesn't give games away.

* I've praised the Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Colts and, incorrectly, the Dolphins so far this season, so let's give a little love to the Bengals. Cincinnati destroyed the Jets Sunday, 49-9, thanks to Andy Dalton's five touchdown passes, four of which went to second-year receiver Marvin Jones. The Bengals have a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, and at 6-2, they should coast to the AFC North title.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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