DETROIT (AP) – The Detroit Lions are walking, talking and playing with a swagger they haven’t had this century.
Down 20 points in consecutive weeks on the road? So what.
Doubts after losing two straight? No sweat.
The Lions have embraced expectations and validated the high hopes some had before their first snap this season.”It’s not just talk,” receiver Nate Burleson said.
No, it hasn’t been.
The Lions are 6-2 for the first time since Nov. 4, 2007 when they routed Denver 44-7. They have the same record and are coming off a lopsided win against the same team, beating the Broncos 45-10 last Sunday.
Four years ago, the Lions fell apart and finished 7-9. Yet that was their highest win total since 2000 – a telling fact about how bad it’s been for the Motor City’s favorite franchise.
This team, though, seems to be built to last as a winner.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew deserves a lot of credit for assembling a competitive and deep team thanks to a remarkable amount of success with signing free agents and trading for veterans who fit into schemes on both sides of the ball. Martin was promoted to clean up Matt Millen’s mess early in the 2008 season when the roster was in such rough shape that the team finished with NFL’s first 0-16 record.
“I wasn’t here for the Millen era, but guys who were say this is completely different,” Burleson said. “I think the new guys have helped there be an attitude adjustment.”
That’s a fact.
Relative newcomers such as Burleson, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, and cornerback Eric Wright were hand-picked by Mayhew, his staff, coach Jim Schwartz and his assistants during the past two offseasons. Each has fit in well on the field and made an impact off it without carrying the burden of being part of the same-old Lions.
“We have the talent to win,” said center Dominic Raiola, whose career record is 45-123 since being part of Millen’s first draft in 2001. “That hasn’t always been the case here.”
The Lions were a laughingstock in the previous decade, stringing losing seasons together like no NFL team had since the Dayton Triangles in the 1920s, with first-round busts such as quarterback Joey Harrington and receiver Charles Rogers. The Lions are the ones laughing now and drawing the ire of some by reportedly taunting Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan when he was hurt; mocking Denver QB Tim Tebow; and asking for an audience with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Ndamukong Suh requested to speak with Goodell and got his wish Tuesday, trying to figure out how he can get fewer flags and fines.
If anybody outside of the organization has a problem with how the Lions are going about their business, they frankly don’t care.
“The only thing we care about is trying to win games,” Schwartz said. “We honestly don’t care about how we’re perceived or anything else.
“All that other stuff, we let everybody else talk about that. We don’t have any meetings on what our perception’s going to be.”
Detroit started the year with relatively high expectations, coming off a four-game winning streak at the end of last season. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson lead a potent offense and Suh is the key player on a unit that drastically improved the back seven with the trio of Tulloch, Durant and Wright.
The Lions validated those who believed this would be their year by starting 5-0 for the first time since their last championship season in 1956. And by becoming the first NFL team to win after trailing by 20 points in consecutive games, rallying to beat Minnesota and Dallas on the road. They took a step back, losing to San Francisco and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks at home, then beat the Broncos by 35 points in the franchise’s most lopsided win on the road in four decades and the Lions’ highest-scoring game as visitors since 1967.
Burleson liked what he saw and heard in the locker room last week in Denver.
“I joked, extremely sarcastic, `Guys, don’t get too excited,”‘ Burleson recalled. “Guys were literally just sitting down, waiting for coach to bring us together. And later, guys were just quietly putting on their clothes with a little music in the background. No one was chest-bumping or high-fiving – after a win like that – because we know we haven’t done anything.”
History, though, shows the Lions are likely on their way to being in the playoffs for the first time since 1999 by being perfect halfway through their road schedule. More than 91 percent of the 35 teams that have won their first four road games since 1990 have earned a spot in the postseason.
Detroit kicker Jason Hanson, in his 20th season with the franchise, isn’t quite ready to buy into the belief that the team’s newfound attitude will automatically lead to a strong second half.
“Probably early to call it swagger,” he said. “But I think it’s a decent confidence.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)