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NFL Team Report - Detroit Lions - INSIDE SLANT
The Detroit Lions still control their destiny in terms of winning the NFC North and earning at least one home playoff game. But are they really in control?
They have technically been in control of their own destiny since beating the Chicago Bears in Week 10 to reach a 6-3 record. But you would think a team truly in control would have secured the division title by now and not given away a home loss to Tampa Bay or found a way to blow fourth quarter leads in three of their last four games.
Amazingly, the mathematical truth remains the same. If the Lions (7-6) can win their three remaining games, against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday, then the New York Giants and at the Minnesota Vikings, they will play their first home playoff game since 1993.
"Obviously, we are in a race for the division title," coach Jim Schwartz said. "We have three games to play. You say it all the time, but you can't really worry about what's happened in the past. You have to keep your eyes focused on the future.
"It starts Monday night with the Ravens. That's about all you can really say about that."
Having control of your destiny should feel more secure than it seems to with the Lions. For every positive, there is a corresponding negative.
--Two of the three games are at home, but since Schwartz became head coach, the Lions have never won two home games in consecutive weeks. They are 0-13 when they've had a chance to.
--The combined record of their last three opponents is 15-23-1. But the Lions, with losses to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, have already proven how meaningless strength of schedule is in the NFL.
"Every game is tough in the NFL," Schwartz said. "It starts back in April when the schedule comes out. Everyone looks at the games and says that's a win, that's a loss. You just never know. There were some teams that weren't playing well at the beginning of the year that ended playing well."
--Three wins will lock it up and the Lions under Schwartz have had three winning streaks of at least three games. But, the team's record in the second halves of the season under Schwartz is 11-25.
"The playoffs start in a couple of weeks but for us, the playoffs are starting now," running back Reggie Bush said. "Every game is kind of win or go home. We have to understand the unique opportunity and the situation we're in right now.
"It's going to be a playoff atmosphere on Monday. Every game from here on out is going to be a playoff atmosphere. There is nothing more that needs to be said from a talking standpoint."
The Lions are currently the No. 4 seed in the NFC behind Seattle (11-2), New Orleans (10-3) and Philadelphia (8-5). Their margin for error has shrunk to maybe a shade above zero.
The Bears (7-6) and Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) have zero margin for error. The Lions have the tiebreaker over the Bears and the Packers have one less victory.
The Bears, who are playing their best football right now even without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and their best defender cornerback Charles Tillman, will play at Cleveland (4-9) on a short week, then at Philadelphia and home against the Packers.
The Packers play at Dallas (7-6), home against Pittsburgh (5-8) and then at Chicago. They still have a puncher's chance to steal this division, a chance that would be greatly enhanced if starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers could return. That has not yet been determined.
For the Lions, though, the math is real simple. Three wins and they play host to a playoff spot. One more loss and destiny becomes a free agent. The Lions would need somebody to trip up the Bears and Packers.
"We have two straight at home and we have to go them," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We can't get down on ourselves. We are still in good position in our division. I think we like when our backs are against the wall - we just go out and fight."
Put up your dukes, then, because that wall is right there.
SERIES HISTORY: 4th regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 2-1. The teams last played in Baltimore in 2009. It was Baltimore-native Jim Schwartz's first year as head coach and his was shellacked 48-3. The Lions' only win came at Ford Field, 35-17, in 2005. The team's first met in 1998 and it turned out to be the final game of Barry Sanders' career. He had 19 carries for 41 yards and finished nine yards short of his fifth straight 1,500-yard season.
NFL Team Report - Detroit Lions - NOTES, QUOTES
--Much was made of the Eagles' players saying they changed their cleats at halftime of last weekend's game in the snow, but unless they put on mukluks they were wearing the same cleats the Lions wore.
"We wear the longest possible cleats that were available," Schwartz said. "It was almost like guys were walking around on stilts. So, unless they had snow shoes or something, I don't know what they could've had on."
Schwartz said the snow impacted everyone the same except for two players - McCoy and Lions returner Jeremy Ross, who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
"We had some guys change after pregame warm-ups because we weren't expecting eight inches of snow," he said. "We were expecting one inch and it kept snowing as the game went on. Some guys changed just to have dry stuff on at halftime, but really there was no difference. We were already wearing the longest allowable cleats."
--Center Dominic Raiola grew up in Hawaii and even when he played at Nebraska never played on a field covered by six inches of snow.
"It was crazy," he said. "I can't even explain it. There were five- and six-inch snow drifts right behind the ball and sometimes I didn't have time to clear it out. To hike it I had to pick it up over the drift. You just can't imagine. Toward the fourth quarter everything was so packed down in spots, there were like mounds."
--Receiver Ryan Broyles isn't giving up on his NFL career. He has had injuries end his season the last three years - two ACL surgeries, including one in college, and this year a ruptured Achilles - but he has vowed to make it back for training camp next season.
"Some people might say, 'Why aren't your spirits down?'" he said. "My body's going to heal. I'm 25 years old, so I'm very optimistic about the whole deal. I've just got to take it a day at a time, and when my time comes I'll be back on the field."
Broyles has played in just 16 games the last two seasons. He said the recovery from the Achilles has been less painful than the ACLs, but it has been slow. After undergoing surgery in Charlotte, N.C., with Dr. Robert Anderson, he couldn't put weight on his left foot for four weeks, so his wife, Mary Beth, cared for him as he crawled around the house. He has been in a walking boot for the past four weeks and can only do range of motion exercises. In two weeks, he'll be back in a shoe, though with a heel lift inside, and in six weeks, he can start running in a pool.
--The Lions have committed 15 turnovers in the last four games. That more than anything has contributed to the 1-3 slide.
"You just keep working at being as consistent as you can and try to get the turnovers out of the system," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We can't have them. It's tough to win football games when you turn the ball over. We know that. We're doing everything that we can to correct it."
On what the team can do to correct the problem, Stafford said, "You just try to have and work on the good habits. If you're a running back, you're trying to hold it high and tight. If you're an offensive lineman or a tight end or somebody blocking, you're carrying out your fake, you're getting there and covering so if a guy does happen to fumble the football you're jumping on it. For me, I'm trying to make as good of decisions I possibly can and challenge myself during the week every day in practice to make the best possible decisions and let that carry over to Sunday."
BY THE NUMBERS: Minus-14 - Lions' turnover ratio through 14 games in the five years under coach Jim Schwartz. They have lost 15 turnovers the last four games.
24-41 - Team's record through 14 games in the last five years.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we let that (frustration) creep into it, it's going to prevent us from doing what we want to do. After all that was done, after all the opportunities we've had in the past, after everything, it's all still in front of us. That's the beauty of it. I think back to the preseason, all the prognostications, I saw 6-10, 7-9; I don't think anyone was saying we'd be in a position with three weeks left to win the division. Having a short memory is going to help us." --Center Dominic Raiola on Lions' mindset
NFL Team Report - Detroit Lions - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Reggie Bush (calf) said he expects to be able to practice this week. The Lions' first full practice this week is Thursday.
--DE Ziggy Ansah (shoulder) took treatment Wednesday. It is unknown how much he will be able to practice this week.
--RT LaAdrian Waddle (elbow) is expected to practice this week.
--QB Matthew Stafford's quarterback rating in the fourth quarters of the last four games is 30.4. The team is 1-3 in those games.
--CB Rashean Mathis did some of his best work in the snow last week. He covered Eagles receiver Riley Cooper and allowed just one catch in eight targets. He had three pass break ups.
--KR-PR Jeremy Ross amassed 243 return yards in the snow Sunday, including a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He is one of just 13 players ever to return a kick and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. Yet, he did not win NFC special teams player of the week honors. That went to 49ers kick Phil Dawson, who kicked four field goals.
--WR Calvin Johnson remains the fourth overall vote-getter for the Pro Bowl with two weeks of balloting left. He trails Drew Brees, Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles.
--RT Jason Fox played a season-high 56 snaps last week, filling in for injured LaAdrian Waddle. He posted the worst grade among the Lions' offensive linemen, however.
--DT Ndamukong Suh posted a career-best 10 tackles Sunday.
--RB Reggie Bush (calf) did not practice Thursday, but he believes he is on track to play Monday night. "Just precautionary," he said of missing practice. "I will be back at practice tomorrow."
--S John Wendling (ill) did not practice.
--CB Chris Houston, who has been hampered by a foot injury, missed practice Thursday with a sore toe.
--DE Ziggy Ansah (shoulder) did not practice Thursday but is expected to return Friday or Saturday.
--DE Israel Idonije (knee) did not practice.
--RT LaAdrian Waddle, who sat out the last three quarters of the game Sunday with an elbow injury, was back at practice, though limited. He was working with the first team offense during the portion open to the media.
--WR Calvin Johnson (knee) was also limited Thursday but is on track to play Monday.
Offensively, the Lions are going to have to find a way to move the football without relying on the interior run game. The Ravens' 3-4 defense is built to stop the run. The Lions will have to attack the edges and attack the only weakness of the defense - pass defense. The issue there will be pass protection. The Ravens are among the leaders in sacks.
Defensively, they will have to get back to their stingy ways against the run and prove the snow game was an aberration. The Ravens offense has struggled this season but they can still sting you with the deep ball. The Lions' secondary has been susceptible to the deep pass.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Lions C Dominic Raiola vs. Ravens NG Haloti Ngata -- The matchup is really between Raiola and guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford against Ngata and tackles Arthur Jones and Chris Canty. The Lions' interior linemen have played at a Pro Bowl level all season and have been frustrated they haven't gotten more respect. Well, they are playing against Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl champions on Monday night. This is their chance to earn that respect.
--Lions safeties Louis Delmas and Glover Quin vs. Ravens WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones -- The Ravens are second in the NFL in pass plays of 40 or more yards. Few defenses have given up more plays of 40 or more yards than the Lions. If the Lions don't pressure quarterback Joe Flacco, he may have a field day.