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The Lions are one of the biggest surprises in the first half of the NFL season, with a 6-2 record and a one-game lead over the Packers for the top spot in the NFC North Division.

Before the season, most experts projected the Lions to finish around .500, but with a three-game win streak, the Lions look to be an NFC contender. In a teleconference Wednesday, NFL Network analysts Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin reflected on the first half of the season and talked about why the Lions have been so successful.

"I went over to training camp and spent some time with the gang and watched them practice. I was really impressed," said Mariucci, who coached the Lions from 2003-2005. "I came away thinking they could win this division, particularly because their defensive front is so big and strong and athletic โ€” it was scary; those guys are really good.

"Now they're the No. 1 defense, which surprises me, because I thought they'd be a little vulnerable on the back end."

On offense, the Lions also have had to deal with a rash of injuries, with receiver Calvin Johnson out for the last three games and limited in the two games before that. Johnson said Tuesday he plans to return for the Nov. 9 game against the Dolphins.

In the meantime, receiver Golden Tate has become a go-to target for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Tate leads the NFC with 800 receiving yards, including back-to-back games with 150-plus yards in the Lions' last two wins.

"Kudos to the way those guys have won games without their mega star. I have the utmost love for Golden Tate and the performance he's put on over there," said Irvin, a Hall of Fame receiver with the Cowboys. "I love seeing things like that because what I think the game does is build men by taking them through unexpected challenges to see how they measure up.

"This guy has measured up going from one place, from the world champions (Seahawks) to Detroit with a new coach and playing the way he's playing."

Last season, the Lions had a 6-3 start but finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. This year, they're looking to avoid a similar collapse behind first-year coach Jim Caldwell.

This year, though, they've overcome double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter and rallied to win the last two games in the final minutes. The offense has been slowed without Johnson and without running back Reggie Bush and their cadre of tight ends, but they've done well to stay on a win streak.

"They're finding ways to win โ€” it's not pretty sometimes, down 13 points to the Saints and come back and win the darned thing," Mariucci said. "They have a chance because the Bears aren't who we thought they were going to be. They're fighting for their lives.

"We thought Green Bay would be the team in that division also, but now they're 5-3 all of a sudden. The Lions have got it going and they were missing three of their tight ends last week."

The Lions already have beaten the Packers this season, but have a daunting second half of the schedule, which includes games at Arizona and New England and finishing with road games at Chicago and Green Bay.

"This team is a well-coached team and it's a talented team. When it's all said and done, they're going to go to Green Bay the last game of the season โ€” and they haven't won there since '91," Mariucci said. "That game might determine the NFC North championship; it's going to be really exciting in that division."

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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