Lions in favorable spot but Caldwell prefers narrow focus

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Lions' A'Shawn Robinson dances off the field after blocking a field-goal attempt in the first quarter against the Packers.

Allen Park — The Lions were sputtering and spinning their wheels in October as they slipped in the NFC standings.

But, of all places, Detroit snapped out of its three-game skid and got back on track in Green Bay, a place where wins have seemingly been nonexistent for the Lions since the 1990s.

With the convincing 30-17 win — Detroit’s second at Lambeau Field the past three seasons — the Lions jumped right back in the thick of playoff contention and in the hunt for a division title.

“We knew,” running back Ameer Abdullah said following the win of the importance of Monday night’s game. “Every division game counts for two. That's something that Matt (Stafford) emphasized all week. He was like, ‘Man, this one counts for two. We need everybody to be keyed in.’”

The Lions were and it showed, resulting in the Detroit’s largest margin of victory at Lambeau Field since 1982. The offense moved the ball so effectively and efficiently it avoided punting for the first time since 1971, while the defense dominated with the exception of a couple fourth-quarter drives.

While the Lions didn’t have much to gain against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team, they had plenty to lose in the divisional race if they fell into a 3-5 hole. Instead, the Lions (4-4) are tied for second place in the NFC North at the halfway point, trailing only the Minnesota Vikings (6-2), and have a couple advantages in their favor.

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The first is last month’s win over the Vikings, which gave the Lions an early upper hand. And considering the Lions have already lost to three NFC South opponents and playoff contenders — New Orleans Saints (6-2), Carolina Panthers (6-3) and Atlanta Falcons (4-4) — it doesn’t bode well for their chances to win tiebreakers for potential wild-card spots, making a division title likely their ticket into the playoffs.

Secondly, the road ahead is much easier over the next eight weeks for the Lions compared to the rest of the NFC North. The combined winning percentage of Detroit’s second-half opponents is .385 (25-40) and features just one team with a winning record — the Vikings at home on Thanksgiving.

By contrast, Minnesota’s remaining opponents are a combined .523 (34-31), Green Bay’s are .470 (31-35), and Chicago’s are .439 (29-37). The Vikings and Packers will also play five of their final eight games on the road, one more than both the Lions and Bears.

But Caldwell doesn’t put much stock into Detroit’s apparent schedule advantage.

“Yeah, I don’t buy into that. You know, games are hard to win in this league and every team has talent and ability,” Caldwell said. “So for us, it’s just one game at a time and try to make certain we prepare well. That’s the key.”

And despite Detroit’s 2-0 start in division games, Caldwell noted his team must not overlook each week's opponent and have a “360-degree awareness but 180-degree focus” in terms of what lies ahead.

In fact, Caldwell doesn’t have to look too far to be reminded that the division race is never over until it’s over. Last year, the Lions stumbled down the stretch and let the NFC North crown slip through their fingers as they lost their final three regular-season games, including the winner-take-all showdown with the Packers in Week 17.

“It’s just kind of one of those things that you just don’t know what’s going to happen week to week throughout the league,” Caldwell said. “That’s why it’s more beneficial not to look down the road and it’s better of just kind of be looking right ahead at who you’re playing next and doing the best you can trying to find a way to win.”

With the winless Browns next on the docket, there’s still plenty of work to do, from correcting the red-zone woes to fixing the lethargic run game.

Cornerback Darius Slay and Abdullah both said the offense and defense have yet to put a full game together this season, but Monday night’s dominant victory was an encouraging sign and could serve as a launching point heading into the second half.

“We still got a lot left in the tank and need to keep improving,” Slay said.

“We ain't at where we want to be. We just know that we got to keep fighting. It's a long season. Like coach always preaches, it's a long season, long road and this could be the game to get us over the hump.”