If you can believe this, we're at the near-midway point of the 2012 NFL regular season.
A handful of teams have already played half of their schedule, while some with early bye weeks will get there next week.
The Detroit Lions are one of those teams, sporting a 3-4 record (along with Dallas, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay) after eight weeks of the season. There has been a lot of doom floating amongst Lions fans, who surely expected better than a 3-4 start.
That's understandable, but did you know the Lions are currently placed ninth in the NFC playoff picture? As in, only three teams stand between them and the sixth seed that got them in the playoffs last season?
One of those teams is the Seattle Seahawks, who the Lions just beat. Another is the Arizona Cardinals, who lost three straight after winning their first four (and who the Lions play later this season).
Ultimately, this picture could tighten up considerably after next week. The Packers play the Cardinals, and the Vikings get the Seahawks. In other words, two of the teams leading the Lions in the Wild Card hunt are basically guaranteed to lose.
Meanwhile, the Lions get the Jacksonville Jaguars, minus Maurice Jones-Drew. And yes, that's a team that gave the Packers fits last Sunday, but the Lions should still be heavy favorites. If the offense plays like it did against Seattle, they'll be 4-4 and right in the hunt.
Still, the tough NFC North is a bit of a problem, as the Lions have already dropped a game to the Vikings. But they get another one in Week 10 to try to even the score.
The Packers are always a tough matchup, but a 5-3 start combined with a glaring lack of the kinds of flashy victories the punctuated their 2011 campaign have made the Pack look surprisingly vulnerable.
Of course, none of this truly matters if the Lions don't start playing to their expectations and winning ball games. Really, the issue with the Lions is not whether they make the playoffs, it's whether they're a good team that can beat other good teams.
Last season, the Lions lost to every playoff team they faced other than Denver (and does that even count?), which raised questions about whether they were really a good team, or just enough above average to win easy matchups.
The Lions were never going to go anywhere this season without beating some quality opponents. And I'm not talking about Philadelphia or Seattle. I'm talking about Green Bay, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago.
If the Lions beat 1-6 Jacksonville, they will improve to 4-4. And then things get brutal.
Based on their current records, there is no team in the second half of Detroit's schedule with a losing record. Not one. The best they get is the Arizona Cardinals, who will either be 4-4 or 5-3 after tonight's matchup with San Francisco.
They get Green Bay twice, the top seeds in both divisions (Atlanta and Houston), and a season-ending showdown against the 6-1 Chicago Bears.
There will be no backing into the playoffs by beating up on the AFC West this year. If the Lions are going to make the playoffs, they are going to have to take that step forward to the next level. And they needed to do that, anyway.
Because if the Lions can't beat the teams they need to make the playoffs, how in the world would they win once they got there?
No longer is this a Lions team that comes into a game hoping for a miracle. They have the talent, ability and mindset to win football games against anybody if they execute.
The Lions have more talent than what they have shown on the field, but so do the Dallas Cowboys. Talent on paper is meaningless until it starts culminating in wins, and the Lions can win. So the while Lions' road to the playoffs is a tough one, it remains open.
Along the way, the Lions are either going to grow immensely as a team, or we're going to find out that maybe they're not who we thought they were.
And either way it's okay, because nobody in Detroit is going to be satisfied with a "just good enough" team that gets brushed out of the Wild Card round, anyway. They need to be better than that to go anywhere in the postseason.
It just so happens that they also need to be that much better to get to the postseason, as well.
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