Allen Park — We keep measuring and inspecting, like jewelers with an eyeglass. The authenticity test for a gem is straightforward, from what I understand. The authenticity check for an NFL contender is considerably more difficult.
Ten games into the season, the only thing we really know about the Lions is that they have a stellar defense. Statistically, it's a great defense, the main reason they're 7-3 and should make the playoffs in Jim Caldwell's first season.
You can appreciate what they've done, and still be confused by how good they actually are, or should be. When the Lions travel to face the Patriots (8-2) Sunday, nothing will be settled in the playoff race, but plenty will be learned. If ever Matthew Stafford and the offense needed to find an identity, this would be it, going against Tom Brady's prolific offense.
What does the Lions' offense do well, besides score in the final three minutes of close games? Where, and when, will improvement come? The Patriots have won 14 straight at home and are 88-13 at home under Brady. Based on that alone, the Lions aren't expected to win, but they're certainly expected to compete. If their contender status is authentic, this will be the best litmus test so far.
"It goes both ways — you think it'd be a litmus test for them as well, right?" Lions safety James Ihedigbo said Wednesday. "It's not like were going in, 'Oh, everything they do is amazing.' We're going in as the No. 1-ranked defense and we earned it."
The Lions' snarling defense is their identity but that can't be all of it, otherwise you wind up with a 14-6 loss at Arizona. The defense will be challenged Sunday like it's been challenged only twice, and passed both. The Lions shut down the Packers 19-7, before Aaron Rodgers decided to put his superhero costume back on. And they mostly stuffed Drew Brees in a 24-23 victory over the Saints.
Now here come the Patriots, averaging 40.5 points while winning six straight. The Lions average 18.8 points, 26th in the league. That's a huge disparity the Patriots often create, but if the Lions' offense really is that far from the best, their contender status is under suspicion.
No excuses for offense
The offensive line has been shaky, with injuries to Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle. Calvin Johnson is back but doesn't look fully healthy. Joique Bell and Theo Riddick are providing more as Reggie Bush provides less. And Golden Tate has been spectacular, although he was inexplicably overlooked with two catches against the Cardinals.
It always goes back to Stafford, and deep into the first season under new coordinator Joe Lombardi, there are no excuses. Lombardi hasn't found a way to make his best players productive, and Stafford looks uncomfortable running whatever it is they're trying to run. He's 26th in the league in passer rating, and while he can be terrific late, he's been way too slow at the start. And for all the talk about reducing mistakes, Stafford has nine interceptions (19 last season).
"We've had some good moments, some bad moments," Stafford said. "I think for a good portion of the season we were without the majority of the weapons that we have now. So the more you get back, the more different ways you've got to find to get guys the ball."
Johnson's supreme talent also produces conundrums, not just for opposing defenses. Stafford relied on him heavily during that 5,000-yard season in 2011, but all those numbers produced little. It's almost as if Stafford hears the voices in his head. Throw it to Calvin! Don't force it to Calvin! Where's Calvin?!
Where's Tate? Where's the running game (30th in the league)? Where are all those versatile tight ends — Brandon Pettigrew, Joe Fauria, first-rounder Eric Ebron?
I don't know who's struggling more, Stafford or Lombardi, but 10 games is a significant sample size. I think the defense is real, with true stars in Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy, Glover Quin and others. If it's not the best in the league, it's top five.
It's still impossible to tell what's possible with the offense under Lombardi, a first-time coordinator.
"Let me address this first of all — it's not Lombardi's system, it's our system," Caldwell said. "Do I still have faith in it? Absolutely, it's just not one of those things that happens overnight. … I know at Baltimore my first year, we sputtered along, had great games, had poor games, then we caught fire at the end and were tough to deal with. So we're hoping to light that match here shortly."
After the Lions failed to score a touchdown for the first time in five years, Caldwell said it's fixable, the pieces are in place. That's why the scoring woes are so perplexing. The defense has bought time for the offense to gather itself, but a trip to New England has a way of exposing things.
If the Lions go there and, say, lose a 23-20 slugfest, it wouldn't cause panic. But if they can't keep up with Brady and Rob Gronkowski, some fans' faith will waver.
After this, there are consecutive winnable home games — Chicago, Tampa Bay, Minnesota — so the playoff chase would be legitimate.
As for the notion of team authenticity, you get the feeling the Lions are eager to be gauged, not intimidated by the Patriots' incredible numbers.
"You should be intimidated by the people we've got on this team, like Suh, guys that are beasts in this league," Ihedigbo said. "So why should we take a back seat to anybody?"
That question will be addressed shortly, as soon as Sunday, when the Lions get to take a test drive in the front seat, just to see how it feels.