I think it's safe to say the first quarter of the 2011 NFL season exceeded the expectations of Detroit Lions fans. Hope was high before the season that the Lions would overcome three road games and come out with a .500 or better record in the first quarter of the year, but I doubt many anticipated a 4-0 start. What's more, I doubt anybody thought the Lions would go 4-0 thanks in part to a pair of comebacks from 20 or more points down on the road.
As the Lions head into the second quarter of the season, the hope is that the winning will continue. After all, the Lions haven't even played their best football yet, but they are 4-0. As Jim Schwartz said after the Dallas Cowboys game, just wait until the Lions actually start playing well. Then opponents will really have to look out for the Lions, which is a surprising statement to make about a team that won its first four games.
The second quarter of the season begins Monday night. On paper, this quarter seems like it should be a much smoother ride than the first, but there are obviously no guarantees in football. After the jump is a look at the final 12 games on the schedule.
Oct. 10 - vs. Chicago Bears
The game with the most hype in the offseason when the schedule was announced managed to become even more hyped during the season. Thanks to a 4-0 record for the Lions, the excitement for Monday Night Football's first appearance in Detroit in a decade has increased quite a bit. Ford Field should be rocking for this game as the Lions look to down their division rival and improve to 5-0.
Oct. 16 - vs. San Francisco 49ers
Jim Harbaugh will return to Michigan with a surprising 49ers team. If not for an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco would be one of the undefeated teams. You can question who they have played all you want, but San Francisco has shown it can win, so the Lions can't take this game lightly.
Oct. 23 - vs. Atlanta Falcons
The final home game of a stretch of three in a row comes against the Falcons. Before the season, this looked like one of the tougher games on the schedule. The Falcons are only 2-2 right now, however, and they haven't looked all that great this year. It will still be a tough game, but it is definitely winnable as the Lions close out their October homestand.
Oct. 30 - at Denver Broncos
Unlike the Falcons, the Broncos pretty much have lived up to their expectations. Also unlike the Falcons, those expectations were pretty low. Denver is 1-3 this season and fans have been busy calling for Tim Tebow to take over at quarterback. I don't think switching quarterbacks would change anything, because the Broncos simply are in the middle of a rebuilding process. For now they are what they are, and that's a pretty mediocre team.
Nov. 13 - at Chicago Bears
The second and final matchup with the Bears is only a month from now. This will be the first game for the Lions at Soldier Field since the controversial finish to the Week 1 game a year ago. This game will certainly be tougher to win than the Monday night game, because I think the homefield advantage for both sides (the crowd on Monday night for the Lions and the field in Chicago) will be a factor.
Nov. 20 - vs. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have been surprisingly competitive with Cam Newton putting up big numbers at quarterback. They are only 1-3, but their losses weren't big. They lost by only a touchdown at the Cardinals, only a touchdown at home against the Packers and only five points at the Bears. They have shown that they can keep things close, and it's only a matter of time until they start breaking through for wins against some of the better teams on their schedule.
Nov. 24 - vs. Green Bay Packers
Although Monday night's game is currently as hyped up as I've ever seen a regular season Lions game, Thanksgiving could trump it depending on what happens from now until then. The Lions and Packers are the NFL's only two undefeated teams, and on ESPN this week there has been a lot of talk about if the two teams can remain undefeated going into Thanksgiving. I would be shocked if both teams made it that far without a loss, but if they do it could be the biggest Thanksgiving game in Lions history. Even if both teams aren't undefeated, first place in the NFC North could be on the line in the Lions' first meaningful Thanksgiving game in a quite a while.
Dec. 4 - at New Orleans Saints
The Lions' tough schedule in the second part of the season continues with a game at the Saints. Although New Orleans is not among the unbeatens, the only reason for that is because they played the Packers the first week of the season. Many have included the Saints in the top spots in NFL power rankings, and that's understandable considering how explosive their offense is. Playing at the Superdome won't be easy, so this will be a good test for the Lions. Luckily they will have a few extra days to prepare after having two games in four days a week earlier.
Dec. 11 - vs. Minnesota Vikings
It will be very interesting to see who the starting quarterback is when the Lions and Bears meet again toward the end of the season. The first matchup produced a 20-point comeback and a win in overtime for the Lions. The Vikings lost to the Chiefs last week to drop to 0-4, and by the time the second game between the Lions and Vikings rolls around, you have to imagine Christian Ponder will take over as the starter. Although they have indicated that Donovan McNabb will remain the starter, he is definitely not the future for them at the quarterback position.
Dec. 18 - at Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are currently 2-2 after beating the Broncos and Jets and losing to the Bills and Patriots. They have an excellent running game and have shown they can be a very tough team to play. With the AFC West up for grabs, they could still be playing for a division title when this game rolls around, and considering it's on the road, it won't be easy for the Lions by any means.
Dec. 24 - vs. San Diego Chargers
The Lions' final home game of the regular season comes on Christmas Eve against the Chargers. Known for their slow starts, San Diego actually went 3-1 in the first quarter of the season. They haven't been that impressive if you just look at the scores of their games (a touchdown win over the Vikings, a three-point win over the Chiefs and a 10-point win over the Dolphins), but the main thing is they're winning. They have a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball, and just like the Raiders, they could be competing for an AFC West title when this game rolls around, so it will be another tough challenge down the homestretch.
Jan. 1 - at Green Bay Packers
If the Lions and Packers keep winning throughout this season, Thanksgiving could only be Round 1 of a battle for the NFC North title. It has been a very long time since the Lions played a meaningful game the last week of the season, but this has the makings of exactly that. The Lions could be playing the Packers at Lambeau Field for the division title or a playoff spot. Even if things go poorly the rest of the season and the Lions aren't competing for any of those things, winning in Green Bay would be a great way to cap off the season and start 2012.
As you can see, the Lions have a lot of tough games still on the schedule. What they did during the first quarter of the season showed that they can win some tough games, but the tests are just beginning. They need to keep winning as the second quarter of the season gets started, because the third and fourth quarters are much tougher on paper.