By NOAH TRISTER/AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) – The Detroit Lions finally started fast, finally ran the ball consistently and finally won a game that didn’t come down to the final seconds.
Not a bad day’s work – but all it did was bring the Lions back to .500 at the season’s halfway point.
At 4-4, Detroit is still in last place in the NFC North, facing an uphill climb to reach the playoffs. The schedule doesn’t look too favorable the rest of the way, with two games against Green Bay and one each against Houston, Atlanta and Chicago.
In other words, Detroit better build on Sunday’s 31-14 victory over Jacksonville. The Lions play at Minnesota next weekend, and a win would pull them out of the division basement.
“I think that whether it’s the first game of the year or the ninth game of the year, whatever it is, when you’re playing a division opponent it becomes more important because a win for you also puts a loss on them,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “The way they started the season, they put themselves in the picture. We can’t worry about that. We need to worry about just this game.”
Minnesota (5-4) beat the Lions 20-13 on Sept. 30. Detroit hasn’t played particularly well in first halves this year, and the Lions’ first three victories all came late in regulation or in overtime. So it was clearly a step in the right direction when Detroit led 21-0 at halftime against the overmatched Jaguars.
Mikel Leshoure ran for 70 yards and three touchdowns, and Joique Bell rushed for 73 yards and a TD. The Lions set a season high with 149 yards on the ground – the only other times they’ve surpassed 100 was during their two overtime games.
“Thought we got good contributions out of the run game. Not just from Mikel in the first half but Joique,” Schwartz said. “I mean, we don’t go into it thinking, you know, hey look, we need to rush for this many or pass for this many. We need to score enough points to win the game. However we do that, it’s great.”
There was concern going in about Calvin Johnson, but he finished with seven catches for 129 yards after getting a pain-killing shot in his left knee.
“He’s no worse for wear. He toughed it out in the game and made a big contribution in the game obviously,” Schwartz said. “We’re in the middle of an NFL season, everybody’s going to be dealing with something like that. But the things that he’s had eventually will be put to bed.”
A more balanced offense would help the Lions, who are without injured wide receiver Nate Burleson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has also looked shaky at times, although he went 22 of 33 for 285 yards with no interceptions against Jacksonville.
Detroit players weren’t available to reporters Monday after their drama-free victory. It wasn’t just the most lopsided win of the season, but it was the first double-digit margin for the Lions in either direction. Their four losses have all been by eight points or fewer.
So the 4-4 start is probably a pretty fair assessment of the Lions’ performance so far. Before the win over Jacksonville, the statistically oriented website footballoutsiders.com pegged Detroit’s chance of reaching the playoffs at 7.2 percent. Beating the Jaguars was a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done, especially in a division where everybody is at .500 or better.
“The most important thing is the way you play. You can’t control anything else,” Schwartz said. “You know, if you play well, then that’s all you can do. Work hard and come out with a win. This is another game for us, an NFC game. You know, it’s a very, very important game for us. It starts the second half of the year.”
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)