Lions vs. Giants keys to the game: Offense has to dictate tempo early

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Most eyes in Detroit and many across the United States will turn to the Lions at 7:10 Monday night. On “Monday Night Football,” the Lions will have their first chance to prove that last year’s 1-6 finish was a fluke and that they are indeed contenders and not pretenders.

In the Giants, they face another team that went 7-9 last season and one that eliminated them from playoff contention last year, though some Lions players said they won’t use that as motivation. Even though quarterback Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, he should give the Lions defense a chance to create some turnovers after throwing 27 interceptions last season.

The game will also be coach Jim Caldwell’s first with the Lions, and after saying all offseason that he thinks they can win now, this is his chance to start the year on a high note.

Key matchup

Matthew Stafford vs. Giants defense. The Lions centered their offseason plans around their quarterback, and this will be his first chance to show improvement after struggling down the stretch last season. New York added some piece on defense, particularly cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but after giving up 23.9 points per game last season, the Lions should have opportunities to score.

Strength vs. weakness

Lions defensive line vs. Giants offensive line. Ndamukong Suh and Co. didn’t meet expectations last season, but could start strong this season. Rookie Weston Richburg will start at left guard for the Giants, who also have new starters at right guard and center.

Start fast

The Lions didn’t lead at halftime in any of their final three losses last year, including a 13-3 deficit to the Giants in a game they lost 23-20 in overtime. If the Lions get out to an early lead, they should have a good enough rushing attack to put the game away.

To the rescue?

The key additions on offense this year were free-agent receiver Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron. The Lions hope that duo can take the defensive focus off Calvin Johnson and give Stafford more open targets.

Coaching debut

The last Lions head coach to win his debut was Steve Mariucci in 2003. Can Caldwell buck the trend?

Secondary status

Strong safety James Ihedigbo (knee and neck) is doubtful, and backup Don Carey (hamstring) is out. Isa Abdul-Quddus, the next man up, has just four career starts in three season. Plus, the Lions still have questions about their cornerbacks.

Dream Cruz

Victor Cruz was two yards shy last year of his third straight 1,000-yard season. The slot receiver missed the game against the Lions in 2013, and the salsa dancer apparently has a new touchdown dance planned.

Jennings jolt

Last year Andre Brown led the Giants with just 492 rushing yards, and they ranked 29th in the league in rushing. They hope free agent Rashad Jennings can give their running attack a boost.

Eyes on DRC

The Giants signed Rodgers-Cromartie this season, and he’s now on his third team the past three years. He’ll be on screen often as he tries to contain Johnson.

Feast or famine

In the first nine games last year, the Lions went 5-0 when they rushed for 100-plus yards and 1-3 when they didn’t hit the century mark. Establishing the run early will be key.

Hot or not

Any game could come down to the kicker, and the Lions will rely on rookie Nate Freese. The seventh-round pick looked comfortable in the exhibition season going 6-for-6 on field goals, but the regular season brings a little more pressure.