DETROIT (AP) – It has been so long – a decade, in fact – since the Detroit Lions played a regular season game on Monday night that kicker Jason Hanson can’t remember it.
Hanson probably has a hard time recalling what happened Oct. 8, 2001, because all he did was kick off once in a 35-0 loss to the St. Louis Rams at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“Wow, it has been that long,” Hanson said entering his 300th game with the Lions. “Monday Night Football is the NFL’s showcase game and it’s exciting that people want to see us play on it again.”
Hanson hopes to make new memories in prime time at home against the Chicago Bears.
Detroit is aiming for its first 5-0 start since 1956, the year before its most recent NFL title, and to snap a six-game skid against Chicago.
The defending NFC North champion Bears want to avoid falling to 2-3 in a division led by the upstart Lions and Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
“It’s a game that puts us right in the mix or will set us back three games,” Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs said. “This is a must-have. We have to have it. Period.”
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler tried to downplay the game in one breath before acknowledging reality a moment later.
“It’s got a playoff atmosphere to it,” Cutler said.
There’s a lot of that going around these days in the mitten-shaped state.
The Lions are kicking off a seven-day stretch in which they’ll play two home games, the Tigers will host Texas in Games 3-4 of the AL championship series next door at Comerica Park.
Also, No. 11 Michigan plays at No. 23 Michigan State 75 miles away trying to snap a three-game losing streak in the series and stay undefeated on the season.
“This is a great little stretch for Detroit,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “But I’d like to think there’s a lot better to come.”
NFL history suggests the former laughingstock of the league will make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
Nearly 70 percent of teams that won the first four games of a season have made the playoffs since Chicago’s 4-0 start in 1933, according to STATS LLC.
Bears receiver Roy Williams said one of his former teams has gotten used to winning – an NFL-best eight times in a row during the regular season since losing to Chicago – and he’s happy for the Motor City.
“I know the fans are excited,” Williams said. “They truly deserve it. No offense to the Bears fans or Cowboys fans, but those fans are the most loyal fans that I’ve seen going through everything that they went through, but still showing up at the games and still cheering for their football team.”
Fans at Ford Field might finally get to root for first-round pick Nick Fairley.
The defensive tackle hasn’t played in a game since he helped Auburn win the national title. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham got excited during practice when Fairley lined up with Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril.
“I looked out there and I said, ‘That is the way life is supposed to be Gunther,”‘ Cunningham said. “Sometimes you dream about those things.”
Followers of a franchise with only one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title and the league’s only 0-16 season just three years ago feel as if they’re dreaming when watching the current team.
Detroit has become the league’s first team to win after trailing by at least 20 points in consecutive weeks, rallying from a 24-point deficit – the largest by an NFL team on the road – to win at Dallas a week after coming back from a 20-point hole at Minnesota.
Calvin Johnson is the only player to catch more than one touchdown pass in the first four games of a season and along with Cris Carter, he’s the second in league history to pull off the feat over any four-game stretch.
“In my opinion, he is not only solidifying himself as the top receiver in the NFL, but he would be my pick as league MVP if the season ended today,” Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders said.
Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman, who will get chances to bring Johnson back down to earth, said he and his teammates will have a hard time trying to contain him.
“He’s the Goliath of receivers right now,” Tillman said.
Copyright 2011 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.