Reviewing the Detroit Lions at their bye:
Eight-game capsule: The Lions justified our case of "Lions Fever" by winning their first five games, capped by a raucous "Monday Night Football" victory over the Chicago Bears. They have won six of eight overall on the strength of their planned formula: An explosive offense and a defense that capitalizes on the havoc caused by its defensive line. Four victories on the road have more than compensated for a two-game home losing streak.
MVP: Without receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions would be no better than 4-4. Not only is he leading the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions, but his acrobatic catches have made the difference in at least two victories. His over-the-head catch in Week 3 against the Minnesota Vikings set up the game-winning field goal in overtime, and in Week 4 he twice outjumped Cowboys defenders for fourth-quarter touchdowns. That's what great players do: They elevate the standing of an entire team.
Runner-up: Quarterback Matthew Stafford has started all eight games, the longest streak of consecutive starts in his career. In the process, he's established himself as the top-level passer and even-keeled leader the Lions projected when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009. If he maintains his current pace, Stafford will finish the season with 4,358 yards and 36 touchdowns. And after throwing 20 interceptions in 10 starts as a rookie, he has thrown just five over his next 11. It's fair to note Stafford has an array of weapons that would make any quarterback blush. But he's also working without much of a running game. Opponents aren't fooled by what the Lions are doing offensively. They're just getting beat.
Biggest surprise: Cornerback Chris Houston didn't generate much interest on the free-agent market, and the Lions took him back on a two-year contract that will pay him $3 million in 2011. That turn of events provided what is usually a reliable reflection of the league's judgment of a player. But Houston already has a career-high four interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns. That's a Pro Bowl-quality first half of the season. Houston's play has been a big reason why the Lions have the NFL's fourth-best pass defense, based on opponents' passer rating.
Biggest disappointment: The Lions had a smart offseason plan to balance their offense: Pair the speedy Jahvid Best with powerful rookie Mikel Leshoure to make opponents pay for devoting seven-plus players to coverage. Leshoure's torn Achilles tendon scuttled that plan, and Best demonstrated he is not a feature back in six games before a concussion sidelined him. Best had 88 yards on one carry, an electrifying touchdown against the Chicago Bears, and 302 on his other 83 carries. That's an average of 3.6 yards on 98.8 percent of his carries. The concussion, Best's second in three months, raises questions about his long-term viability as an NFL player.
Stat(s) to note: Stafford has thrown an NFL-high 256 passes out of the shotgun formation. That's 85.6 percent of his total attempts and a clear illustration of how the Lions have shifted to a spread offense. Even so, the Lions have still been effective in play-action. They're averaging about one touchdown for every 7.5 play-action passes (seven touchdowns in 53 attempts).
Looking ahead: The Lions have a real shot at their first playoff berth since 1999. It's hard to imagine them missing it if they win five of their final eight games. Even a 4-4 split would leave them at 10-6 and in good shape. Their Nov. 13 game against the Bears will begin a critical stretch of five consecutive games against NFC opponents. Conference record is a critical tiebreaker. If the Lions are going to lose, Week 15 at Oakland and Week 16 against the San Diego Chargers would be the least harmful to their playoff hopes.