The Detroit Lions have spent this decade being one of the worst teams in the NFL. This season, they will enter the halfway point as playoff contenders.
The Lions will be trying to build on their latest surprise win on Sunday when they host the Denver Broncos.
A victory will give Detroit (5-2) its best record midway through a season since being 6-2 in 1999, the last time it made the playoffs. The Lions have endured six straight seasons with at least 10 losses and won just three games last year, coach Rod Marinelli’s first.
Marinelli, however, has them only one game behind the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers after Sunday’s 16-7 road win over defending NFC champion Chicago.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said. “I think Rod is going to keep us in there, keep us knowing that next week’s game is even bigger. We know what it means. … We need to keep it in perspective and got to keep that mind-set that every week is a big game.”
Behind quarterback Jon Kitna, the Lions own the third-best passing attack in the NFC with an average of 243.4 yards per game. Though its defense ranks last in the conference with 367.1 yards allowed per contest, Detroit leads the NFL with 20 takeaways, 13 interceptions and 69 points off turnovers.
“Nobody expected it,” said receiver Roy Williams, who caught eight passes for 77 yards against the Bears. “People laughed at us at the beginning of the year. Hopefully, we’re turning some people’s heads.”
Detroit won for the second time on the road, but both of its defeats have come away from home in blowouts. The Lions lost 56-21 in Philadelphia on Sept. 23 and 34-3 in Washington on Oct. 7.
Kitna was 24-of-35 for 268 yards without an interception last week while Kevin Jones rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Jones, who ran for 689 yards and six TDs in 12 games last season, was making just his second start after injuring his foot last December, and the Lions are hoping he can continue to boost a rushing attack averaging just 90.3 yards per game.
“We didn’t even know if we were going to have him at all this year,” Kitna said. “And to have him playing at the high level that he is playing at is great for us.”
Smith had just one interception in his previous three seasons, but has thrived while helping replace star corner Dre’ Bly, who was traded to Denver (3-4) in the offseason.
“I’m just getting an opportunity, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’ve been here since 2004 and I’ve been playing behind Fernando Bryant and Dre’ Bly, both great players, but when my time was called I was ready.”
Bly, who played for Detroit from 2003-06, is coming off a rough game. He was beaten by Green Bay’s Brett Favre on an 82-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on the first play of overtime in Monday’s 19-13 loss.
Champ Bailey, the Broncos’ other Pro Bowl corner, also was beaten by Favre on a 79-yard TD pass to James Jones in the first quarter. Bly and Bailey anchor a pass defense that is allowing 187.6 yards per game—sixth-best in the NFL.
“We don’t give up too many balls like that,” Bly said. “When a ball’s up in the air like that, we make those plays. I can’t recall getting beat like that on the last play of the game for that much yardage. It happens. It happens to the best. I’m going to regroup.”
Denver, which had tied the game on Jason’s Elam’s 21-yard field goal as time expired in regulation, has dropped four of its last five and now plays four of its next five on the road for the first time since 1997.
“We had a lot of games at home to start the season and now we have a lot of games on the road,” receiver Brandon Stokley said. “It doesn’t matter, we just have to play good football.”
The Broncos offense is averaging 354.6 yards per game to rank seventh in the league, but red-zone problems have led to them scoring no more than 20 points in each of the last four losses.
“Anytime you get the ball down there, you’ve got to get points,” said quarterback Jay Cutler after Denver failed to score touchdowns in three of four trips inside Green Bay’s 20-yard line.
The Broncos also are dealing with some key injuries. Pro Bowl safety John Lynch was knocked out in the first half, and Denver was already without No. 1 running back Travis Henry (ribs) and No. 1 receiver Javon Walker (knee). While Walker is expected to miss another month, it’s uncertain if Lynch or Henry will be able to play Sunday.
Selvin Young took over for Henry and ran for 71 yards on 18 carries against the Packers.
The Broncos are 6-3 all-time against the Lions, including 3-2 in Detroit.
Bailey will face off against his brother, Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey, for the first time in an NFL game.