Here are five questions on the 5-3 Detroit Lions:
1. What surprised you most about the first half of the season?
This is an easy one to answer: the offensive line. In the preseason, the offensive line was quite possibly the biggest question mark for the Lions. Not only were three new starters entering the lineup, but the Lions' position battles at right guard and right tackle lasted a pretty long time. It seemed much more likely that the O-line was going to be a weakness rather than a strength.
As it turns out, the O-line has been a big strength. Riley Reiff has been solid in place of Jeff Backus at left tackle, and Larry Warford has been stellar as a rookie at right guard. And even though the Lions have started three different guys at right tackle (Corey Hilliard, Jason Fox and LaAdrian Waddle), that position has been pretty solid as well. As a whole, the offensive line has come out of nowhere to be one of the Lions' top position groups this season.
2. What was the most disappointing thing about the first half of the season?
If we're talking about specific position groups, a few candidates come to mind. The Lions' cornerback play has been largely disappointing this season. I suppose that's what happens when a rookie like Darius Slay is getting playing time, but Chris Houston has been very inconsistent this season as well. The defensive line has also been inconsistent at times, especially in the run game. On the other side of the ball, the injury issues at wide receiver have been frustrating.
Personally, the most disappointing thing to me is that the Lions let the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals games get away. The Lions very easily could have won both of those games, and we could be talking about a 7-1 team right now. Then again, the Lions were very lucky to beat the Dallas Cowboys, but the point is that this team feels more talented than a 5-3 record. Given how the second half of their schedule looks, the Lions should win a lot of games down the stretch, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will.
3. Of the Lions' remaining eight games, which one are you most excited to watch?
The Monday night game against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens will be a lot of fun, but Thanksgiving against the Green Bay Packers is the easy answer. Spending Thanksgiving with the Lions always proves to be, well, interesting, and this year the game could have big implications on the NFC North title race. There really wouldn't be a better time for the Lions to end their losing streak on Turkey Day than this year.
4. Have your expectations for the Lions changed at all following their 5-3 start?
Yes, but it has less to do with the Lions and more to do with the teams on their schedule. Going into the season, I predicted the Lions to start 5-3. I knew this team was going to be much improved, and although certain parts of the team have pleasantly surprised me, I wouldn't say they've exceeded my expectations so far.
A couple months ago, because of their schedule, I was expecting a 3-5 finish for the Lions and an 8-8 record overall. Now, though, 8-8 would be a huge disappointment because the schedule has turned out to be so easy. The Lions actually have the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. The Lions' remaining opponents have a combined record of 20-38, and four of Detroit's final six games are going to be at home. As long as they avoid any major injuries, the Lions should win at least 10 games this season. Anything less than that would be a big disappointment in my mind.
5. Can this team really contend for the NFC North title?
Can the Lions give the Packers a run for the NFC North title? Yes. Will they? I'm just not sure. The Packers have the NFL's second-easiest remaining schedule, and despite dealing with several big injuries, they have won four straight games. They seem to be on their "A" game right now, and it's possible they could be riding an eight-game winning streak going into Thanksgiving against the Lions.
Even if the Lions are able to beat Green Bay on Thanksgiving, keeping pace with the Packers will be tough. The Lions' schedule suggests that they should at least be in the mix for first place in the NFC North as the season winds down, but they don't have much margin for error. When they take on teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, for example, they can't let a repeat of the Arizona game happen. The second half of the schedule is filled with games the Lions should win, and if they want to even think about capturing the NFC North title, they have to actually win them.