Despite reputation, Lions should be legit contenders
The Detroit Lions have amassed more than enough talent to make a run at the playoffs.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
When it comes to football, perhaps no city is as well versed in the soft bigotry of low expectations as Detroit.
Lions fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop -- especially in Green Bay, Chicago or Minneapolis -- and sure enough it came crashing down in Titletown back on back on Oct. 6 when Calvin Johnson was unable to go due to a balky knee and Detroit laid what is now its now annual egg at Lambeau Field, falling to Aaron Rodgers and Co., 22-9.
The mood, though, has shifted since and a funny thing happened in the Second City last Sunday.
The latest shoe was descending in rapid fashion. The Lions had a 21-13 lead with just over two minutes to play and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was forced to the sidelines with groin and ankle issues but surely Detroit would find a way to lose it, right?
Veteran backup Josh McCown came in to take over under center for the Bears and a Nick Fairley roughing the passer call moved the ball to midfield. Four straight completions later in the drive moved the ball 43 yards before McCown found Brandon Marshall in the back of the end zone from 11 yards out for the TD with 40 seconds to play.
It was a fait accompli ... Chicago would be successful on the 2-point conversion and win it in overtime.
Hold on though, McCown's pass attempt on the 2-point conversion fell incomplete and that pesky shoe was averted or so it seemed. There was yellow on the field, however. Yet another roughing the passer call on Detroit -- this one on Willie Young -- gave the Bears another chance from a yard closer.
The dumb, undisciplined narrative was still in effect and sure to be in the headlines when the local papers hit 8 Mile Road. That is until Fairley busted through the improved Bears' offensive line on the subsequent attempt and corralled Matt Forte for a loss.
Detroit won for the third time in four games, both Rodgers and Cutler are now hurt, and the Vikings stink, meaning it's the Lions atop the NFC North.
Marshall, though, is far from convinced, almost dismissing the Lions and their city.
"It's the little brother that, big brother wants to go out and play with his friends and the little brother is annoying, (saying), 'Hey, can I go?'" Marshall told ESPNChicago.com when talking about the rivalry. "No, you can't go, Detroit Lions. Sit back. Sit in your little city. Fix your financial problems and all of that, you know. You can't come with us right now.
"They swept us. But what matters is when we see them in the playoffs. It'll be a great show, but I guarantee it's not gonna go down like it did the first two games."
Hindsight is now telling us that if you pick in that top five consistently, you'll probably accumulate enough difference makers to make a postseason run every now and again, and the Lions have done exactly that.
It seems like Detroit has been picking in the top 10 of the NFL draft forever and few teams across the NFL can match what the Lions roll out on Sundays.
Four players on Detroit's roster were picked by the Lions in the top five overall -- Johnson (No. 2 in 2007), quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1 in 2009), defensive end Ndamukong Suh (No. 2 in 2010) and defensive end Ziggy Ansah (No. 5 in 2013).
Add in Reggie Bush, who was selected No. 2 overall in 2006 by New Orleans, and solid picks like Fairley (No. 13 in 2011), offensive tackle Riley Reiff (No. 23 in 2012), linebacker DeAndre Levy (No. 76 in 2009) and safety Louis Delmas (No. 33 in 2009) and it's pretty evident Detroit is the most talented team in the division from one through 53.
Now it's time for the next and perhaps most important step -- consistency, something coach Jim Schwartz emphasized when talking about the supremely talented Fairley, the same guy who set the Bears' final drive in motion with a roughing call before rebounding to end it with the brilliant tackle for loss.
"He still has been inconsistent. He played very well in spurts," Schwartz said. "I think that was encouraging, but there has also been some inconsistency. I think that?s been one of the things that he?s been working on throughout the course of this season."
Schwartz arrived in the Motor City after a decade of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron and Rod Marinelli, turning Marinelli's 0-16 embarrassment of 2008 into a playoff team by 2011.
He has to this point, though, been unable to field a smart team, capable of staying away from those 15-yard death sentences that extend opposition drives and cost you games.
To most like Marshall, Detroit remains the same undisciplined bunch which has turned underachieving into a cottage industry in the Motor City. And they're still waiting for the collapse.
"You know what's funny is that I have a little brother and growing up, I was always like the older brother, pushing him around a little bit, and now he's 6-foot-7," Bush said when responding to Marshall's remarks. "There's no more pushing him around anymore. He can hang with me. At some point in time, the little brother always grows up and ends up being the bigger brother."
The Lions have amassed more than enough talent to get out of the way of that other shoe. The real question is, can they get out of their own way?
"We have six wins. That's not going to be enough," Schwartz said. "I don't know if anybody looks at it the way that. We don't talk about standings and things like that this time of year. You have to go out and prepare for your next opponent."
That next opponent happens to be the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a city where the Lions haven't won since 1955 and a place where the Lions can show critics like Marshall that they are all grown up.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found here.
THE GAMES (All Times Eastern) - Week 11
Indianapolis (6-3) at Tennessee (4-5), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
LINE: Colts by 3
THE SKINNY:: The Titans squandered a golden opportunity to turn up the heat on Indianapolis in the race for the AFC South division crown in Week 10, losing to the previously winless Jags. Mike Munchak's club will get another chance starting Thursday in Music City when the two clubs meet in the first of two matchups over the next three weeks. The sequel is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 1 at Indianapolis.
The 6-3 Colts currently hold a two-game edge over Tennessee in the division and if the Titans are going to make a move they will have to do it knowing that starting quarterback Jake Locker is lost for the season due to a Lisfranc injury. Indianapolis really hasn't been the same since Reggie Wayne went down with a season-ending ACL tear and it's hard to imagine them righting things on a short week. Ryan Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, is no star, but he has a ton of experience and is one of the better backups in football.
Look for the Titans to close the gap in the AFC South here before the Colts hold serve in Indy down the line.
PREDICTION: Titans 23, Colts 17
New York Jets (5-4) at Buffalo (3-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bills by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY:: Get used to Geno Smith versus EJ Manuel in the AFC East. The two rookie QBs will be meeting for the second time on Sunday and could very well be enemy combatants for the next decade or so.
If the playoffs started today, Smith and the Jets would be in as the AFC's second wild card. A productive bye week resulted in losses on and off the field for two of New York's perceived competitors for the final slot (Tennessee and Miami), while Rex Ryan is hoping the time away will help end the Jets' win, lose, rinse and repeat cycle.
New York has won nine of its past 11 against the Bills and four of its past five in Western New York. Back in September, Smith threw two TD passes and recorded his first career 300-yard passing game (331) while RB Bilal Powell ran for 149 yards as the Jets topped the Bills, 27-20. Manuel, on the other hand, tossed for 243 yards and a score but connected on just 19-of-42 passes.
PREDICTION: Bills 21, Jets 20
Baltimore (4-5) at Chicago (5-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bears by 3
THE SKINNY:: Baltimore may have saved its season with an overtime win over Cincinnati last weekend, while Chicago is facing life without Jay Cutler again.
The talented Bears QB is back on the shelf with a high ankle sprain suffered in a 21-19 home loss to the Detroit Lions. He had been cleared to play in the critical NFC North showdown after missing a Week 9 contest at Green Bay with a groin injury which was expected to sideline him for a minimum of four weeks.
Veteran backup QB Josh McCown, who has thrown for four TDs and amassed a 103.2 passer rating in three games this season, replaces Cutler. The Bears, though, also lost big-play cornerback Charles Tillman to a triceps injury against the Lions, and have already been toiling without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton as well as starting linebackers Lance Briggs and DJ Williams.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are 13-8 against NFC foes under John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco has completed 78-of-117 passes for 1,067 yards with eight TDs and just one pick in his last four tries out of conference.
PREDICTION: Ravens 24, Bears 16
Cleveland (4-5) at Cincinnati (6-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 5 1/2
THE SKINNY:: A two-game losing streak by the Bengals has opened the door for both Cleveland and Baltimore with the top three teams in the AFC North separated by just 1 1/2 games overall and just a game in the loss column.
Cincinnati sits atop the division with a 6-4 record with both the Browns and Ravens at 4-5. Cleveland gets an opportunity to cut into that lead on Sunday when they visit the Bengals.
Cleveland defeated the Ravens in Week 9 and had a bye last week. In the team's win over Baltimore, quarterback Jason Campbell, the third signal caller to start for the Browns this season, threw three touchdown passes and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Cleveland, which already knocked off the Bengals in Week 4, is looking to sweep the season series from for the first time since 2002.
"We've hit the halfway point of the season and now we have to play well in the second half," said says Browns first-year coach Rob Chudzinski. "It starts with our same approach and playing games one at a time."
The Bengals are 4-0 at home in 2013, outscoring opponents 116-55 in those games. Cincinnati, though, has two consecutive overtime losses: 22-20 at Miami in Week 9 and 20-17 at Baltimore last week. QB Andy Dalton has thrown three interceptions in each of those games.
"We still control our own destiny," said Bengals center Kyle Cook. "We have three division games left and two are at home. We're far from the end of the season. We've got plenty of season left."
PREDICTION: Bengals 23, Browns 16
Oakland (3-6) at Houston (2-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 7
THE SKINNY:: Texans coach Gary Kubiak expects to be back on the sidelines Sunday just two weeks after suffering a transient ischemic attack or "mini- stroke" at halftime of the team's loss to Indianapolis back on Nov. 3
Kubiak will be rejoining a Houston team which has lost seven straight and is now without Ed Reed and Arian Foster. Reed, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and future Hall of Famer, was cut on Tuesday days after stating the Texans were "outcoached" during a 27-24 loss at Arizona. Foster, meanwhile, was placed on season-ending injured reserve due to a back injury.
For Oakland, all eyes are on QB Terrelle Pryor after the first-year starter said his knee was bothering him throughout a loss at the New York Giants in Week 10. Pryor has thrown just one touchdown versus eight interceptions in his last four games, compiling a dismal 42.0 passer rating over that span.
PREDICTION: Texans 26, Raiders 17
Arizona (5-4) at Jacksonville (1-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Cardinals by 6 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Jaguars got their first win of the season last Sunday thanks to a Paul Posluszny-led defense which generated four turnovers in a 29-27 win over Tennessee. Posluszny was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after recording eight tackles, along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Jacksonville will try to make it two in a row against a Cardinals team featuring a stout defense and the big-play ability of rookie RB Andre Ellington, who leads all NFL backs with 7.2 yards per rush. Arizona LB Daryl Washington is the only player in the NFC with seven or more passes defensed, (7), two-plus sacks (2) and two-plus INTs (2) despite being suspended for the first four games.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 24, Jaguars 13
Washington (3-6) at Philadelphia (5-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Redskins never make it easy on themselves. After starting last season 3-6, Washington ran the table to win the NFC East with a 10-6 mark. By that measure the 3-6 'Skins are right where they want to be against a weird Eagles club that is 5-1 on the road and 0-4 in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia has lost 10 straight as the host dating back to last season, but it already beat the Redskins, 33-27, in DC on Kickoff Weekend back in September when LeSean McCoy amassed 184 rushing yards and QB Michael Vick accounted for three TDs (two pass, one rush). Nick Foles has since taken over as the signal caller for the Eagles and has thrown 16 TDs this season without an interception.
PREDICTION: Redskins 28, Eagles 24
Detroit (6-3) at Pittsburgh (3-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Lions by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Steelers have won three straight over Detroit and 11 of 13 overall. Dating back to 1966, Pittsburgh has won eight consecutive over the Lions in Western Pennsylvania and you have to go back another 11 years for Detroit's last win there, a 31-28 triumph on Nov. 13, 1955,
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has never lost to Detroit (2-0) and reached 90 career wins in his 135th start last week, the fifth-fastest to that mark in the Super Bowl era.
Lions signal caller Matthew Stafford has passed for 2,686 yards (335.8 per game) with 19 TDs and a 99.2 passer rating in his last eight outings against AFC teams.
PREDICTION: Lions 23, Steelers 21
Atlanta (2-7) at Tampa Bay (1-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY:: Two teams with a combined record of 3-15 face off in Central Florida. Atlanta has lost three straight and six of seven overall while the Buccaneers snapped an eight-game skid by edging Miami on Monday night.
Bucs rookie QB Mike Glennon recorded his first career win against the Dolphins and has six TD passes and just one interception in his last four games.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have won eight of their past 10 against the Bucs which has coincided with Matt Ryan's arrival in Atlanta.
PREDICTION: Falcons 20, Bucs 14
San Diego (4-5) at Miami (4-5), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Chargers by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy will continue to take up most of Miami's time, making this one almost a necessity for a reeling Chargers team hoping to stay in the AFC playoff picture.
Win or lose San Diego QB Philip Rivers continues to play well and is averaging 328 pass yards per game on road this season, second-best in the NFL behind Peyton Manning. His counterpart here, inconsistent second-year Dolphins signal caller Ryan Tannehill, has thrown for six TDs and compiled a 85.6 passer rating at home in 2013.
PREDICTION: Chargers 30, Dolphins 23
Green Bay (5-4) at New York Giants (3-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Giants by 6
THE SKINNY:: It's not who you play, it's when you play them. A Giants club which figured to be road kill against an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team is now favored against Green Bay with Scott Tolzien at the controls.
Tolzien was impressive at times and threw for 280 yards and a TD in his NFL debut last week, a 27-13 loss to Philadelphia. That said, the Packers without Rodgers, who is out with a broken collarbone, is like a Lamborghini without its engine.
The Giants haven't been all that impressive while winning three straight after starting the season 0-6 and their QB, Eli Manning, continues to perform poorly. However, New York has taken advantage of a soft spot in its schedule with an improved defense and is now back in the NFC East race.
PREDICTION: Giants 24, Packers 16
San Francisco (6-3) at New Orleans (7-2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 3
THE SKINNY:: Two of the NFC's best will meet in New Orleans. The Saints lead the NFC South with a 7-2 record while the 49ers are in the postseason hunt with a 6-3 mark.
San Francisco has won five of its past six games, scoring at least 30 points in all five of those wins. Things stalled last weekend against Carolina's tough defense, however, as the Niners mustered just nine points and Colin Kaepernick threw for only 91 yards.
New Orleans, on the other hand, defeated Dallas, 49-17, as the Saints set an NFL single-game record with 40 first downs. The offense was led by quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 34-of-41 passes for 392 yards with four touchdowns. Brees extended his NFL-record streak to 21 consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes at one venue (The Superdome).
"It was an important win for us," said Saints head coach Sean Payton. "We did a lot of good things. But each week is a different challenge and we'll certainly have our hands full this week coming up against San Francisco."
PREDICTION: Saints 31, 49ers 21
Minnesota (2-7) at Seattle (9-1), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 13 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Seahawks are 9-1 for the first time in franchise history and have won 12 straight at home, which correlates with Russell Wilson taking over as the team's quarterback. The second-year star has completed 170-of-261 passes for 2,322 yards with 24 TDs versus six INTs in Seattle, including a 16- of-24 performance with three scores in a 30-20 win over the Vikings in 2012.
To make matters worse for Minnesota, the Seahawks activated ex-Vikings star Percy Harvin from the physically unable to perform list earlier this week. Harvin, one of the game's elite playmakers when healthy, was acquired from Minnesota in the offseason.
The Vikings quarterback carousel could continue, this time because of injury. Christian Ponder played one of his best games against Washington on Nov. 7, but suffered a shoulder dislocation to his non-throwing arm.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 31, Vikings 17
Kansas City (9-0) at Denver (8-1), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 8
THE SKINNY:: The AFC's top two teams will meet on Sunday night as the 9-0 Chiefs face the 8-1 Broncos. The teams' combined winning percentage of .944 (17-1) is the highest in a single game this late in the season since Dec. 7, 1969 when the 11-0 Los Angeles Rams faced the 10-1 Minnesota Vikings (combined 21-1, .955 winning percentage).
The Chiefs, who had a bye in Week 10, are the first team in the four major professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) to start a season 9-0 after finishing with the worst record in the previous year.
Kansas City has allowed a league-low 111 points and is the first club since 1934 to start 9-0 and not allow more than 17 points in any of the first nine games.
"It's a big game," said Broncos interim head coach/defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "It's a divisional game against the team we're chasing right now."
The high-powered Denver offense will try to solve the Chiefs' stingy D. The Broncos have scored 371 points, the most through the first nine games of a season in NFL history. Leading the way is quarterback Peyton Manning, who has passed for 33 touchdowns, tied with Tom Brady (2007) for the most through the first nine games of a season.
"They've got a good football team," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid."They've got good players and good coaches and that's normally a pretty good formula."
PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Chiefs 14
New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3), Monday, 8:40 p.m.
LINE: Panthers by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY:: The Patriots, who had a bye in Week 10, will look to continue the offensive success they had in Week 9 when New England scored 55 points and racked up 610 yards of total offense.
In that victory over Pittsburgh, quarterback Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, his 15th game with at least four touchdowns and no interceptions. The Pats are a perfect 15-0 in those contests.
"There's a lot of football left to be played," said New England head coach Bill Belichick. "We just need to focus on what we're doing and who we're playing and try to go out there and play better than we've played, try to improve and try to win. We're not looking at anybody but Carolina right now."
The Panthers aim for their sixth consecutive win behind a defense which has been one of the NFL's best, allowing 115 points, the second-fewest in the NFL behind only 9-0 Kansas City (111).
Carolina is the only team in the NFL to rank in the top five in total defense (second), rushing yards allowed (second) and passing yards allowed (tied for fourth). Last weekend, the Panthers held San Francisco to nine points and 151 total net yards in a 10-9 victory. Entering that contest, the 49ers had averaged 34.8 points and 357.6 total net yards per game over their previous five contests.
"Everybody's on the same page," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who ranks second in the NFC with 8 1/2 sacks. "When everybody is on the same page, buying into the scheme, you're going to end up being successful. It's all about being a team and playing as one."
PREDICTION: Panthers 20, Patriots 16