Once upon a time, the Detroit Lions won a playoff game. Yes, one. This franchise has only a single victory in the entire Super Bowl era, and they've been around for the whole thing. At least it was a good win, taking down a Dallas Cowboys squad featuring Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, just before they won three Super Bowls in four years.
But this isn't a story about ancient history. This is about the Lions potentially being on the verge of something big -- not necessarily three-titles-in-four-years big, but certainly bigger than one playoff win every 40 to 50 years. Led by a quarterback who grew up in Dallas during those Aikman, Smith and Irvin glory days, a receiver who might be the best in the NFL and a rapidly maturing defense, Detroit is a team on the rise.
The Lions head to Cowboys Stadium on Sunday seeking another victory that could stamp them as a team to beat in the NFL this season -- that is, if they aren't already. After all, Detroit is 3-0 and has the league's longest winning streak, seven in a row. "They've won 11 games straight if you include the preseason," Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears said. "So they're not slouches, not at all."
Clearly, coming to grips with the idea of the Lions being a team to beat is easier for players than for fans, especially the players about to play Detroit. This week, the Cowboys watched the Lions turn a 20-0 halftime deficit at Minnesota into an overtime victory, and saw their 48-3 pounding of Kansas City the previous week.
They've watched Matthew Stafford -- a native of Highland Park, an affluent Dallas suburb -- throw two touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson in all three games, and Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch pressure quarterbacks. "You see their talent over there?" Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "They have all the tools. I guess now they're putting it together." The Cowboys are still trying to figure out how good they might be.
They're 2-1 and part of a three-way tie atop the NFC East, a burgeoning turnaround of their own after a 1-7 start that doomed them last season. But every game has been an adventure -- and all decided by a field goal or fewer. Their past six games last season also were that tight, the longest such stretch in NFL history. Dallas is 5-4 in that stretch, and proud of it.
"It's really part of the deal in the NFL," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "You have to play well in quarters one through three. But regardless of how well or how poorly you play, typically these games come down to how you perform in the fourth quarter." The bigger challenge for Dallas the past two weeks has been dealing with injuries, primarily on offense.
Tony Romo has won the past two games while playing with a cracked rib, and many of his most talented teammates are sidelined or also playing through pain."I'm not back to where everything is back to normal yet, but it's definitely on its way," said Romo, who expects to be wearing a protective vest and to take painkilling medication before kickoff.
Both teams have something to look forward to after this game. For Dallas, it's a bye week to get healthy. For Detroit, it's three straight games at home, an opportunity to continue what's already been the franchise's best start since 1980.
In just a few weeks, the Lions have notched their largest-ever margin of victory in a regular-season game and their biggest comeback win on the road. They've also stretched their road winning streak to four straight, their longest since 1969-70. More amazing is that it immediately follows a 26-game road losing streak, the longest in NFL history. The previous time Detroit lost on the road happens to have been at Cowboys Stadium. Jon Kitna was filling in for Romo then, and Shaun Hill was filling in for Stafford.
It was a weird game that included a hair-pulling tackle, a 97-yard punt return and the Lions being the Lions -- well, the old Lions -- by folding when things started going against them. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz compared that to the way his team rallied to win in Minnesota last weekend, despite penalties and mistakes. "We didn't turn the ball over," he said. "We didn't give up any long touchdowns off the returns and things like that.
We were able to hang in that game, keep it manageable and then once we started playing better in the second half, we were able to get back in that game and obviously take it to overtime and win." Having Stafford leading things makes a difference, too. The former No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the only question about him is durability because he's missed a lot of time with injuries. Stafford has the third-best passer rating in the NFL, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, and ahead of Drew Brees. Only Brady has thrown more touchdown passes than Stafford's nine.
This weekend, he may also be among the league leaders in tickets purchased. He estimates springing for 25. It will be his first time playing at the $1.3 billion Cowboys Stadium after many appearances at Texas Stadium. "It's fun going home and playing and I'm excited about it," he said. "Once the ball is snapped, I'm not thinking about that."
One of his teammates might. Suh brought up this week his 0-2 lifetime record at Cowboys Stadium. There was the loss to Dallas last season, and an excruciating, last-second loss to the Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 championship game when he was at Nebraska.
"I don't really like that stadium," he said.