Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been at times brilliant this season and, compared to his NFC North counterparts, healthy. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — The road is paved, and no, it doesn’t look like the road to oblivion. If it’s ever going to happen again for the Lions, this just might be the year.
Hey, no punch line here. The Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993, when they last hosted a playoff game. For most of the past two decades, they haven’t come close. But now they’re 5-3 and in a three-way tie for first, and it’s almost eerie how the path is being cleared, and scary we can discuss it without being mocked, yet.
The Bears could be without Jay Cutler when they host the Lions on Sunday. The Packers almost assuredly will be without Aaron Rodgers, who broke his collarbone, on Thanksgiving at Ford Field. Near as I can tell, the 1-7 Vikings are trying to use some combination of Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and the Ghost of Fran Tarkenton.
Trust me, I’m not trying to jinx Matthew Stafford, who has gone from allegedly brittle to thoroughly reliable and periodically brilliant. This isn’t just about the injury scourge in the NFC North. Even before quarterbacks started dropping, the Lions were in position for a legitimate run at the division, which would assure a home playoff game, which happens once every 20 years around here.
The final eight opponents for the Lions are a combined 22-43, and although they aren’t the only team with a seemingly weak schedule, they could benefit most from the injuries. When they made the playoffs two years ago and got smoked by the Saints, it was a giddy 10-6 ride, sparked by improbable comebacks. This time, they appear more mature, more solid, less sideshow-ish. Stafford and Calvin Johnson are still the main attraction but the Lions are much sounder on the offensive line, and potentially stifling on the defensive line.
Of course, it guarantees nothing. But at this very moment, with Josh McCown possibly starting for the Bears and Seneca Wallace for the Packers, the Lions are in a prime position they can’t deny, and can’t take for granted.
“I think people were more excited about us getting to the playoffs a couple years ago, whereas now it’s playoffs or bust — going deep or bust,” center Dominic Raiola said Wednesday. “I think that’s the mentality this whole team has. Nobody’s talking about it right now, but the sense of urgency is crazy in this locker room. There’s no complacency, nobody tooting our own horn saying, ‘Oh look, Jay Cutler’s hurt,’ or, ‘Oh look, Aaron Rodgers is hurt.’ We’re still on a proving ground ourselves.”
Setting up nicely
Yep, they sure are. And to prove themselves worthy, they have to stand their ground. The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise, developing rapidly with three new starters, including fine rookie Larry Warford. Riley Reiff has stepped in very well at left tackle and Raiola and Rob Sims are having excellent seasons.
Stafford has been sacked 10 times, fewest in the league. But the Lions defense is 29th with 13 sacks, and although it produces consistent pressure, even more is needed from Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and others.
You’d think with the prospect of facing McCown, Wallace and Ponder-Freeman-Tarkenton, Suh would need a drool towel while he talks. Not exactly.
“I like going against Aaron Rodgers, I like going against Cutler,” Suh said. “I wish them the best speedy recoveries so I can go against them and take them down.”
He wasn’t being brash, just blunt. He leads the team with 3.5 sacks, which isn’t the most accurate measure of the line’s impact. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh has 40 quarterback pressures, among the best in the league. The Lions are second allowing opponents to convert a mere 29 percent of third downs.
Still things to shore up
And yet the defensive front must produce more big plays to compensate for a shaky secondary. Jim Schwartz doesn’t completely share that belief, but he knows what’s possible.
“We have a lot of places we can play better,” Schwartz said. “And we’re at our best when our defensive line is creating some havoc and forcing turnovers.”
Fairley may be slowed by a shoulder injury but needs to be more forceful. Rookie Ziggy Ansah has light-’em-up moments but is sporting a walking boot on his injured left ankle. The Lions haven’t gotten a lot of explosive plays from their defense, but linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are two signs of this team’s improved solidness, which is better than flightiness.
“I feel like we have a window of opportunity being 5-3,” Suh said. “The race is on, and not necessarily because those (quarterbacks) are out. … You always want the playoff situation to be in your hands. We want to keep it in our hands and make sure we will ourselves into the playoffs, not have to wait for somebody else to will us in there.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way to the postseason. The Lions are only halfway down a freshly paved road, and potholes can open at any time. But this is a suddenly expanding opportunity, a trip they need to make.