The Detroit Lions have not always done their best when it was most expected. Admittedly, expectations have been at an ebb the past couple of decades,
But, recently, when their ability and expectations were on a high level, the Lions too often played like tame kittens.
Their ability and fan expectations are high right now. After the Minnesota Vikings upset the Chicago Bears last Sunday the Lions were left alone at the top of the NFC North. The magic number to win their first division title since 1993 is three.
But shame on them if they start thinking it's a lock and take their foot off the gas pedal. Of all teams, the Lions should have a firm understanding of how narrow their margins are and how fragile their grip on this division still is.
"We're not going to drink that Kool-Aid again," center Dominic Raiola said in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving Day win against the Green Bay Packers. "We're going to enjoy this one but we're going to make sure we come back more urgent more than ever."
Similar comments were made by coaches and players after they won in Chicago. That win was followed by losses to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Less words, more deeds.
"We haven't always handled success well," coach Jim Schwartz admitted.
There are no gimmes in December for the Lions. The next two weeks especially will be tough. They play at the Philadelphia Eagles (7-5) on Sunday against a team that has won four straight and is in a battle with Dallas for the NFC East title. Then they play host to the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, a team that is 6-6 and fighting for its playoff life, on Monday Night Football.
If the Lions win in Philly and the Bears lose to the Cowboys at home Sunday, the Lions could clinch the division with a win against the Ravens. That is the best-case scenario.
"We have an opportunity," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We have to go out and play well, we know that. We have a challenge by going on the road this week. We've got to go in there and make sure we prepare for them this week and play well."
If they falter, it would put some heat on the last two weeks -- against the Giants (4-7) and at Minnesota (3-8-1).
"I think we are going to play with that same urgency that we played with (against the Packers)," Raiola said. "That's the best way to do it and it is the only way to do it when you're in this position. We are not going to take that foot off the gas. There is no relaxing."
SERIES HISTORY: 30th regular-season meeting. Eagles lead series, 14-13-2 and the Lions have lost five of the last six. The one victory, though, came last season - a 26-23 overtime win at Philadelphia. The two teams played once in the postseason, a horrific 58-37 loss in Philadelphia in 1995. The two teams also played in what was known as the runner-up bowl in 1962, which the Lions won 38-10.
--Reserve linebacker and special teams contributor Travis Lewis has been suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.
"I apologize to my coaches, teammates, the Lions organization and our fans for my actions," said Lewis in a statement released through the team. "I have let my team down and there's nothing worse than that. I will not make the same mistake again. I look forward to returning to the team after I serve my suspension."
Lewis, who did practice with the team Tuesday, will lose $112,941 in salary. He is the first Lions player suspended for use of PEDs since Shaun Rogers in 2006.
"All NFL players know they are responsible for their actions, and they also know there are consequences when their actions are not consistent with league policy," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "While we are disappointed that Travis violated league policy and will miss the next four games, we expect that Travis will learn from this experience and not repeat it."
--The practice facility has looked like a convention for out of work kickers the last couple of days. But as of Wednesday night, the only place-kicker employed by the Lions remained David Akers. The team worked out three kickers on Monday, including Havard Rugland, and three more kickers on Tuesday, including Shayne Graham. None were signed.
Akers is 14 of 19 in field-goal attempts with two blocks. He missed a 31-yard field goal against the Packers. Coach Jim Schwartz said the workouts were a normal part of business and not meant as a warning or wake-up call to Akers.
"I'm confident in all 53 guys on our roster," Schwartz said. "That's why they're here. All 53, if the opportunity went for them to go in the game, whether it's Akers, whether it's Shaun Hill, whether it's Kellen Moore, they're here because we have confidence they can go in and get the job done for us. They don't always. That's just life in the NFL when it comes to trying to be consistent. But that wouldn't affect our judgment in putting anybody out there to do the job on Sunday."
--Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah has put himself in the conversation for rookie defensive player of the year and the all-rookie team with back-to-back two-sack games.
"I feel more comfortable every single week," Ansah said. "I came in as a rookie and I try my best not to play like a rookie. That's what I am working on."
The No. 5 overall pick has seven sacks in 10 games, plus two forced fumbles and a pass deflection.
"We saw it, I think it was the third play he played in the preseason where he intercepted that ball and scored -- he just has those instincts," Schwartz said. "He's around the football and he's very comfortable in our defensive scheme. He doesn't have to worry. He's done a nice job not just in our rush packages, but stopping the run. He's hard to handle in the run game and he's also done a good job in our blitz packages."
--Receiver Jeremy Ross has had two returns of 30-plus yards and two of 40-plus yards in his three games as a return man for the Lions, and that's not including a 60-yard punt return that was nullified by a penalty. He also caught a touchdown pass against the Packers. So it is highly unlikely that Schwartz would go back to Micheal Spurlock now.
Ross, though, isn't taking anything for granted.
"In this league, you can't get comfortable," he said. "You've got to keep pushing forward, keep moving forward. You never arrive, no matter what situation you are in. I won't be like, 'I'm here now, whew!' The pedal is always going to be to the floor. I am still going to practice like I am on the practice squad."
--Quarterback Matthew Stafford didn't bother to wait for Christmas, he's been in a giving mood all season. Five different players have 30 or more receptions. When Nate Burleson catches four more passes, they will have six different players with at least 30 catches for the first time in team history.
"It's a testament to those guys," said Stafford, who is on pace for 5,100 passing yards this season. "They work hard to gain my trust and to gain the trust of the offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan). We've had to have that for injury reasons and things like that and those guys have stepped up and made plays."
--Twelve games in and Lions cornerbacks have just one interception, that by Chris Houston in Week 3. "I don't know if it mean we are struggling in coverage," Schwartz said. "I think we are one of the best third down teams in the NFL -- we're near the top on third down, near the top in red zone. I think we have missed some opportunities. There have been some plays that we could have got interceptions and we failed to capitalize. ... But you can't press and you can't start gambling. We were there a couple years ago where we had a couple guys that were gambling too much and it ended up hurting the defense."
--Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on being fined $7,587 for making a throat-slashing gesture during the Tampa Bay game. "It wasn't a planned thing. It is what it is. I can't do anything about it, but move forward." He said he knew it was a fineable offense. "It's over and I'm past it."
--There is a trio of Lions among the top 10 at their positions in early Pro Bowl voting. Johnson is the top vote-getter at receiver, Bush is No. 5 at running back and Stafford is No. 7 at quarterback.
--The NFL has announced the Lions will play the Falcons at London's Wembley Stadium Oct. 26, 2014 at 9:30 a.m. ET. That is a 1:30 p.m. start in the UK and it will allow fans in the U.S. a quadruple-header of games for the first time in the league's broadcast history.
BY THE NUMBERS: 34 - Consecutive quarters the Lions have played without allowing a rushing touchdown (eight games).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everything that a professional football player is, Dominic kind of exemplifies that. He's misunderstood at times, but he really cares about this. I am honored to be out there with him for his 200th game. To be able to give him and give us a victory and to be able to celebrate with him, that's what we've been talking about. It's awesome when you can be with a guy, a warrior, who's been through the worst of the worst here and been to the high, to the playoffs, who's still at it and more passionate than ever." --Receiver Nate Burleson on center Dominic Raiola's 200th career game played last Thursday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--CB Darius Slay, coming off his best game of the season, showed up on the injury report with a knee injury Thursday. He was working all the drills during the portion of practice open to the media. The injury must've happened during practice. The severity of the injury won't be known until Friday.
--RB Reggie Bush (calf) missed practice for the third straight day. He is expected to play Sunday, however.
--WR Calvin Johnson (knee), as expected, was back on the practice field Thursday after missing Tuesday and Wednesday.
--S Louis Delmas (knee) stayed true to his weekly regimen, too, and also practiced.
--DE Israel Idonije (knee) did not practice Thursday.
--CB Chris Houston (foot) was listed as limited Thursday.
--QB Matthew Stafford now has 3,825 passing yards on the season. He became the first passer in team history with three career 3,500-plus passing seasons. His 3,825 yards is second only to Peyton Manning (4,125) this season, and Stafford is on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards.
--OLB DeAndre Levy leads the league with six interceptions. He is the third linebacker in team history to record six interceptions in a season and first since Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt in 1958.
--DT Ndamukong Suh, who was credited with six quarterback pressures against Green Bay, has 27.5 career sacks. He needs two more to pass Shaun Rogers (29) as the franchise leader among defensive tackles.
--LB Julian Stanford, former Jaguar, was signed to replace suspended linebacker Travis Lewis.
--C Dominic Raiola did not allow a single quarterback pressure in 35 pass attempts against the Packers.
--RT Corey Hilliard has been a full participant at practice the last two weeks but since missing three games with a knee injury, he has fallen from starter to third team. Rookie LaAdrian Waddle has taken command of the right tackle spot and Jason Fox has been the backup the last two weeks.
--WR Nate Burleson was not targeted against the Packers but he has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last two games he has played against the Eagles.
GAME PLAN: It will be interesting to see how the matchup between the No. 2 rush offense (Eagles) and the No. 3 run defense (Lions) plays out. It will be imperative for the Lions to contain LeSean McCoy. As they did against the Packers last week, if they can take away the run and force quarterback Nick Foles to beat them, they have a greater chance of winning.
Offensively, as the year has gone on, the Lions have seemingly found a comfort level against 3-4 defenses - evidenced by the 561 yards of offense against the Packers. They haven't faced as much team speed as the Eagles will throw at them maybe all season. They will need to adjust to that without turning the ball over.
If they can protect quarterback Matthew Stafford, he should be able to pick apart a shaky secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Lions defensive line vs. Eagles RB LeSean McCoy -- McCoy is the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,088 yards. The Lions have been almost impenetrable against the run, holding teams to 40.5 yards rushing in the last six games. They have yet to allow 100 yards to a single running back and overall they rank third in the NFL allowing 82.7 yards per game.
--Lions DE Ziggy Ansah vs. Eagles LT Jason Peters -- Ansah leads all rookies with 7.0 sacks but he is going to have his hands full with 6-4, 328-pound Pro Bowler Peters.
--Lions CB Chris Houston vs. Eagles WR DeSean Jackson -- Houston didn't play last week because of a foot injury. He practiced Tuesday but he will be a game-time decision. If Houston can't go, rookie Darius Slay would have to step in.
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