The Detroit Lions were pretty much every expert's dark-horse pick to make the playoffs before the season started. They had plenty of talent returning from a year where they won their last four games and were arguably the hottest team in football.
Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch gave the defense a personality and mean streak that had been sorely lacking for over a decade.
Calvin Johnson, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, and Jahvid Best anchored an offense that was explosive at times but missed its most valuable piece, QB Matthew Stafford, for most of the season due to injury.
We are now five games into the season and the dark horse has become a front runner.
The Lions are capable of going into their bye week at 8-0, with games against the surprising San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos remaining. They have proven they can come from behind, with two dramatic victories over the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys.
The Lions have shown they have the killer instinct to put a team away, driving the ball methodically down the field late in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears for a field goal that essentially put the game out of reach.
Now the question is how do they continue winning games and avoid getting complacent?
Well first of all, it starts at the top. After defeating the Bears in the Lions' return to Monday Night Football, coach Jim Schwartz took a four-hour power nap and then started preparation for the next game against the 49ers.
Teams generally take a day to allow players and coaches to digest wins but in a short preparation week, Schwartz and the Lions went right back to work.
Second, the running game that emerged from seemingly nowhere in the second half against the Bears needs to be consistent.
If the Lions want to be able to put opponents away, they will have to be able to run effectively. In their last drive against the Bears, the team ran the ball eight times and did not attempt a pass. That drive took the game clock below the two-minute warning and made the Bears use all of their timeouts.
At the end of the drive, the Lions kicked a field goal to make it a two-possession game. It is these kinds of drives winning teams make on a consistent basis to finish out games.
Time will tell if the Lions can establish their running game more than once every five games, but it is one of the most important things they need to focus on.
The third key to continued success is a fairly obvious one but an extremely important one: They must keep Stafford protected and healthy.
The Lions do not, by any stretch of the imagination, have an elite offensive line so they have to protect him with different packages and quick-release routes. Stafford has been in the shotgun for over 85 percent of his drop backs this season, the most of any quarterback in the league. This, along with Stafford's quick release, have helped mask the Lions biggest deficiency.
A lot of the pressure of continuing Detroit's hot start falls on the offensive line, which is the key component in protecting Stafford and opening holes for the running game.
Detroit has the pieces to be a very good team in the NFL, and if the offensive line continues to perform like they did against Chicago, they may be able to finally end the 12-year playoff drought.
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