Bob Wojnowski: This Lions team can contend, unlike some others we’ve seen


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park

Go ahead and say it, even if it’s premature, even if it sounds kind of funny and almost never gets said around here.

The Lions are a playoff team. Yep, they are. Or should be. Or will be.

They look like it, they snarl like it, and most important, they go on the road and play like it. The Lions are 6-2 at the bye after spending Sunday in Denver treating their opponent as if picking wings off flies. The Lions have a brutishness about them that makes some people uncomfortable, but is mostly necessary in the NFL.

Hey, if drama addicts want to slap labels of “evil” and “dirty” on the Lions, so be it. Those are much better than previous labels of “irrelevant” and “horrific.”

But it’s apparent they aren’t just some nasty bunch that knock quarterbacks and “quarterbacks” (hello, Tim Tebow) on their derrieres. Ndamukong Suh plans a trip to New York this week to make that point with commissioner Roger Goodell. Suh plays on the edge and occasionally crosses it, but I think his intentions are more about impunity than impurity.

The Lions want their defense to be intimidating, and it can be. What they did to Tebow in that 45-10 pasting wasn’t mean. It was predictable. And linebacker Stephen Tulloch swears no disrespect was intended by his post-sack pose, when he went down on a knee to mimic the “Tebowing” craze.

The Lions push the envelope when it comes to abrasiveness, and they do have to be careful. No sense doing too much “Suh-bowing” or “Elbowing.” But they shouldn’t care what anyone calls them as long as they’re not committing dumb penalties, and as long as they push the pocket as well as the envelope.

The Lions sacked Tebow seven times and are third in the league with 24, behind only the Giants and Ravens.

“I think you get an edge by doing things that are within your personality,” coach Jim Schwartz said Monday. “For us, that’s rushing the quarterback, sacking the quarterback, making big plays. Those are the things we want people to respect about us. Those are the things we want people to fear about us.”

Those are the things that turn middlin’ teams into playoff teams. I’m sure you’re aware the Lions haven’t made the playoffs since the 1999 season, when Bobby Ross was the coach and Gus Frerotte (!) was the quarterback.

Challenges ahead

The schedule toughens considerably now, starting with a visit to Chicago after the bye. There are two meetings with Green Bay and trips to New Orleans and Oakland. But the Lions have won six straight on the road after dropping a tidy 26 in a row.

A mere split of the final eight games makes them 10-6 and a potential wild card. If you’re into all the probability gobbledygook, a 6-2 team has a 79.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Stats, LLC (since 1990). Here’s an even better number: A team that wins its first four road games has a 91.4 percent chance.

And you thought you’d be bored in January. I’m risking looking foolish here, but that’s OK. The Lions actually are loaded with talent, and that’s not a loaded statement. Nor am I loaded right now. On the Fox broadcast Sunday, former NFL safety John Lynch suggested the Lions have as much talent as any team in the league.

Not sure about that, but they do have as much defensive-line talent as anybody. For all the acclaim about Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, don’t overlook Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson. Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew said they’d rebuild by unleashing mayhem upon opposing quarterbacks, and that’s one way — maybe the best way — to win in the NFL.

Times have changed

Having a franchise quarterback is another way, and Matthew Stafford has overcome injuries and bouts with accuracy doubts to put up impressive numbers — 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

A growing dynamic is the way the defense complements the offense.

Against the Broncos, Avril had a 24-yard fumble return for a touchdown, and underrated cornerback Chris Houston added a 100-yard interception return. You could say both bear asterisks because they came against Tebow, but that’s mean.

You know what playoff teams do? They win on the road. They sack the quarterback. They create turnovers, and the Lions are third in the league with 11 interceptions. Their run defense is still a concern (ranked 30th), but interestingly, they lead the league in forcing three-and-outs, a statistic Schwartz clearly likes.

“The ability to get the ball back quickly for our offense is important,” he said. “We have an explosive offense, but we have big-play capability on defense too.”

No one would be goofy enough to guarantee a playoff berth. Not even me. Of course, the Lions were 6-2 in 2007 after blasting the Broncos, 44-7, and proceeded to finish 1-7, which laid the groundwork for 0-16. Other than still playing in Ford Field and wearing the same color scheme, these Lions bear no resemblance to those Lions.

Home losses to the 49ers and Falcons were eye-openers, and evidence a punishing ground game is something the Lions lack, and have trouble stopping. That could be an issue against tougher teams. But the Lions have proven they can win almost anywhere (Tampa, Dallas) and almost any way.

Officially, they’ve accomplished nothing so far, other than building an identity that a lot of people are noticing. It’s what playoff-worthy teams do, in case we’d forgotten.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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