When the Detroit Lions took the Kansas City Chiefs to the brink of their first loss of the season back in Week 4, I held back any declarations that the Lions had arrived or that they were for real. As far as I was willing to go was to point out that the team had remained competitive for four weeks in a row, which was obviously a huge step in the right direction from last year.
But the Lions have not arrived yet. They don’t get to be called contenders just four games into the season. Just look at our lovely Cowboys friends to see how quickly a promising start can be erased from existence.
And for the Lions, a 2-1-1 start really isn’t all that impressive when looking around the rest of the NFC. The conference alone has a 5-0 49ers team, a 5-1 Saints team riding their backup quarterback, a 5-1 Seahawks team that never seems to go away and the returning NFC Champions. Oh, and literally every other team in the Lions’ division has more wins than them right now. 2-1-1 is good, but it’s not good enough to be labeled a contender with any sort of legitimate confidence.
There is a whole different level this team is now facing. One that doesn’t hope to hang with the Chiefs, but expects to beat them. One that looks at the remaining schedule and doesn’t expect to be underdogs at home for the final two months. If the Lions are contenders, we aren’t talking about 9-7 or even 10-6 seasons. We’re talking 11, 12-win seasons. And Detroit has yet to prove they’re capable of that.
The challenge ahead of them is not easy. Though Lambeau Field isn’t the insurmountable peak that it used to be for this franchise, it’s still a place where road victories are hard to come by. In the past five years, only four teams have a better home record than the Packers. Green Bay is off to a 4-1 start. Some may question the validity of their wins thus far, but they already have two wins notched against the best division in football.
If the Lions are for real—whatever that term really means—this is no impossible task. This is just another week in the schedule. If the Lions are for real, a close loss on “Monday Night Football” is the same thing as a blowout loss: unacceptable.
But let’s not kid ourselves here. A win changes little, either. Yes, the Lions will be in first place, but the Vikings, Bears, and Packers will all be less than a game behind them. Yes, they will have a pretty impressive resume through six weeks, but teams are not awarded the division for their placement in Week 7 Power Rankings. A loss the following week puts them right back into the “middle of the pack” conversation.
Next week, a just-as-daunting game awaits Detroit. The Vikings are 4-2 and hitting their stride on both sides of the ball. They’ll have an extra day of preparation for the Lions, and this rivalry has not been kind to the Lions as of late. Detroit has lost three straight, and they haven’t scored more than 23 points against that Vikings defense since 2013.
And even then, if the Lions win both games and sit at 4-1-1 atop the NFC North through Week 8, Detroit fans shouldn’t start buying tickets to this franchise’s first home playoff game since the 1993 season. This team has been atop the NFC North before. They held the division lead after Week 10 of the 2016 season, after Week 16 of the 2014 season and Week 14 of 2013. We all know how those seasons ended.
If this team is for real, they’ll need to prove they won’t drop a letdown game to the Giants or Raiders down the stretch. Detroit has a long 12 weeks of uninterrupted football ahead of them, and “real” teams would treat every single one like “Monday Night Football.”
Still, back-to-back divisional wins will do a hell of a lot to build some confidence for the team, for Matt Patricia, and for a fanbase starving for some sign this team is finally on the right track. 4-1-1 would be the Lions’ best start since 2011. Two divisional wins—one on primetime—would start to change the conversation around Matthew Stafford and his ability to win big games.
Whether all that defines “for real” or not is up to you.