- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Detroit Lions reporter
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It may be early in the season -- not even at the halfway point yet -- but the Detroit Lions are clearly making a push for the playoffs.
They have already won two road games, have yet to lose at home and have enough playmakers to really make a push this year.
Don't, though, ask them about it. The expectations in Detroit have never changed.
"I think every team expects to be a playoff team," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "We're no different, but at the same time, it's a week in and week out business. It's the NFL. One week, the team wins and everybody is writing about how they're going to be the next Super Bowl champions.
"The next week they lose and everybody is wondering what's wrong and who's job is on the line and all that. The teams that are mentally toughest, the teams that can deal with all the outside noise and not pay attention to it and move on from week to week, are the teams that are going to be successful. That's what they are trying to do."
So far, so good for Detroit, which is 4-2 -- even dealing with two major Ndamukong Suh fines, Nate Burleson crashing his car while reaching to save a pizza and injuries to Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson that caused both to miss at least one game.
How do the Lions keep things going? Here are five keys for Sunday against Cincinnati:
Short the Green: Cincinnati's offense is most effective when receiver A.J. Green is able to run longer, more vertical routes for quarterback Andy Dalton. The Lions need to be able to cut those routes and force Green into more slants and hitches, perhaps doing this by using safety coverage over the top to keep Dalton from looking too deep too often. If Detroit's secondary can keep Green catching balls within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, that will go a long way toward a Lions victory.
Score through the air: Detroit has a much better chance of scoring touchdowns against Cincinnati by passing the ball instead of running it. Sure, anyone who has watched the Lions for any period of time would say the Lions are a better passing offense, but the Bengals have allowed only three rushing touchdowns over their first six games of the season opposed as to eight passing touchdowns. And when you're Detroit and you have both Calvin Johnson and Joseph Fauria as red zone mismatches on cornerbacks and safeties, it makes sense to take advantage of that as much as possible.
Block the middle well: The strength of Cincinnati's defense comes up the middle, starting with defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins, the latter one of the best in the league. They are backed up by Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker, giving them a formidable group pressuring Detroit's center, Dominic Raiola, and guards Rob Sims and Larry Warford. They have been good up the middle for the majority of the season, but Atkins is an imposing force there to make life difficult.
Score early: While it has offensive weapons and likes to go vertical, Cincinnati is not a particularly high-scoring team. The Bengals have only outscored their opponents by 10 total points and are 23rd in the league in points per game (20.2). Not surprisingly, the Lions are scoring a lot more there at 27 points a game, seventh in the league. When you take out the one game the Lions played without Calvin Johnson, that number jumps to 30.6 points a game. So the Lions will be able to score and if their offense has even average efficiency, could outscore the Bengals.
It may be early in the season -- not even at the halfway point yet -- but the Detroit Lions are clearly making a push for the playoffs.They have already won two road games, have yet to lose at home and have enough playmakers to really make a push this year.