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Lions' progress not yet reflected in record

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

There is no question that Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a man who hides his feelings as well as Bristol Palin dances, is on his way to the boiling point. Anyone who saw Schwartz launch that challenge flag in the second half of Detroit's loss at Dallas on Sunday noticed the frustration that's building. Several major league baseball scouts have expressed interest in Schwartz since he fired that red hanky with Nolan Ryan velocity.

While frustration is natural given a 2-8 season, there has been increasing discontent with Schwartz among the fans as the Lions butchered end-game strategy in recent losses to the Jets and Bills. With the Lions set to host the Patriots on Thursday, here's hoping that the discontent is coupled with a bit of reality. Hey Lions fans, have you really forgotten Matt Millen that quickly?

In the search for perspective, let's go to Schwartz's opponent on Thursday: Patriots coach and Schwartz friend Bill Belichick.

"Do people know how much better that team is than anything they've had there in years?" Belichick said as he paused momentarily during a stroll through the Patriots locker room on Monday. At 8-2, the Patriots are a prohibitive favorite this Thanksgiving in the Motor City. That said, Belichick knows this Lions team is on the right track.

"They've been in, like, five of their losses, coming right down to the end," Belichick said, correctly referring to the fact that five of Detroit's eight losses have been by five points or less, including four by a field goal or less. "And they're doing that with a backup quarterback pretty much the whole season."

Indeed, while the record doesn't reflect it, the Lions have made stunning progress despite playing seven games with backup Shaun Hill(notes) instead of promising second-year quarterback Matt Stafford, the top overall pick of 2009 who has been limited to 13 career games because of shoulder injuries.

The Lions are clearly playing better football. Here are the 10 teams in the NFL who are 3-7 or worse and their point differential for the season:

Point differentials this season
Team Rec. Diff.
Lions 2-8 -3
Browns 3-7 -14
Cowboys 3-7 -42
Bengals 2-8 -47
Vikings 3-7 -54
49ers 3-7 -59
Bills 2-8 -63
Broncos 3-7 -70
Cardinals 3-7 -104
Panthers 1-9 -135

Some would argue that close counts for nothing in the NFL. Even Schwartz said this offseason that the only thing that will keep him from receiving criticism is winning.

True, but let's keep some perspective. Last season, the Lions were outscored by a total of 232 points on their way to a 2-14 record. Of the 14 losses, only three were decided by fewer than 10 points and none were decided by less than a touchdown.

In other words, the folks in Detroit would be wise to heed the words of Belichick, who had Schwartz as a scout in Cleveland from 1993 to 1995 and watched him become one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL at Tennessee.

"I have a lot of respect for Jim," Belichick said. "Jim's a real smart guy. He has a good background in personnel as well as different levels of coaching and, certainly, as a defensive coordinator and head coach. So the guy has a real good grasp for the overall game – not just coaching but personnel and making adjustments and matchups and those kinds of things. "You can just see in their game plans and trying to match up against the Lions – whether it's us doing it this week or watching other teams do it from week to week – that it's hard. They've got good players, they've got good schemes and they get a lot out of their personnel. They put them in positions that make it tough for you, defensively, to defend or to block them the way you want to block them. They do a good job of that."

QUICK SLANTS

Young and done?

The popular refrain you hear from experienced quarterbacks, including really intelligent ones such as Trent Dilfer(notes), is that Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young(notes) is done as a starter in the NFL. As Titans owner Bud Adams made it clear Monday by saying that Young and head coach Jeff Fisher need to work out their differences, writing the quarterback off completely may be a mistake.

For proof, look no farther than Eagles quarterback Michael Vick(notes). Like Vick, Young has spent the early years of his career squandering his talents because he doesn't know how to study the game.

On Sunday, Young was heading to the bench regardless of the thumb injury he sustained – he was placed on injured reserve on Monday – because he missed one read after another. That performance came on the heels of Young playing poorly in a backup role at Miami. Time and again, Young simply missed opportunities to throw to wide receiver Randy Moss(notes) when the Dolphins rolled their coverage away from Moss, knowing that when Young looks to one side of the field, he's not coming back to the other side unless he breaks the pocket. In other words, any halfway decent defensive coordinator can develop a plan to stop Young, who then struggles and subsequently can't handle the booing he gets from fans. This is at least the second time in Young's career that home fans have driven him to distraction.

Yo Vince, get some thicker skin. While it remains to be seen how things ultimately play out with the Titans (a large group of players with the team think Young is too soft mentally to trust him again), there is a chance Young could work out. The success of Vick, whose life certainly bottomed out worse than Young's, provides a glimmer of hope for Young.

Top five
1. New England Patriots (8-2):
No team does a better job of limiting mistakes than the Pats. They're not overwhelming, but that was the norm in their title years.

2. Atlanta Falcons (8-2): Big game at home against Green Bay could be the swing between the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds in the NFC playoffs.

3. New York Jets (8-2): Technically, they're ahead of the Patriots in the AFC East. But right now, they're just getting by.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3): Dear Ben Roethlisberger(notes), don't try to intimidate defensive linemen; you're out of your league on that one.

5. Green Bay Packers (7-3): Two weeks in a row, they beat an opponent so badly that it had to fire its coach.

Bottom five
28. Minnesota Vikings (3-7):
Have two winnable games (at Redskins, vs. Bills) before going on a three-game run against the Giants, Bears and Eagles.

29. Cincinnati Bengals (2-8): Gave up 35 points to Buffalo … in the second half. This team has fallen almost as far as the Vikes.

30. Denver Broncos (3-7): As noted last week, that victory over Kansas City was a mirage created by the bye week.

31. Arizona Cardinals (3-7): The Cardinals are so bad that franchise star WR Larry Fitzgerald(notes) may check out of this situation ASAP.

32. Carolina Panthers (1-9): Usually, the players quit on the coach. On this team, the coach has quit on the players.

This and that

Having just noted my top five teams, let me say this: The San Diego Chargers are the best team in the NFL right now, even with their 5-5 record. Sadly, because they will have to go on the road again, likely visiting such lovely spots at Pittsburgh and New England in January, the Chargers may ultimately waste yet another great team.

The best example of how fruitless the current talks about a new collective bargaining agreement have been: The NFL Players Association recently countered the league's requests for an 18-game schedule and a rookie wage scale by asking that the time to reach free agency be reduced from four to three years. That's a pretty fair request, but the league immediately shot it down. As one person from the union side said, "It's early." Yep, nothing is getting serious until February or March.

Give New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton some credit for discretion. Earlier this year, Payton was privately upset with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who left Southern California after last season, for not being more supportive of former Trojans running back Reggie Bush(notes), who surrendered his Heisman Trophy in a torrent of criticism. On Sunday, the Saints put up 34 points by early in the third quarter and could have put up 50, but Payton called off the dogs.

While many NFL observers are pumping up his team, Belichick is keeping perspective on the season. "Two weeks ago, the sky was falling around here," Belichick said, referring to a 20-point thumping the Patriots took at the hands of Cleveland. "Now, everything is great." Belichick then shook his head, knowing full well that riding the wave of popular reaction in the NFL is brutal.