Critical juncture: The Detroit Lions have reached what might be the defining period of their season. (Too dramatic? Time will tell, I guess.) They opened 2011 displaying the explosiveness and swagger that many of us thought they possessed; their 5-0 start put them in excellent position to make a playoff run. But consecutive losses suggest the NFL has caught up to some of what they were doing, a pretty normal occurrence over the course of a season. So do the Lions have a counterpunch, both schematically and psychologically? Or are they destined to settle in as an average team? Bouncing back against the Denver Broncos, who are 2-4 but riding the Tim Tebow wave, would give us an early answer to that question.
Matthew Stafford might be playing with a tender ankle, but faces a favorable matchup against the Broncos.
Straightening out Stafford: All indications are that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will start despite an injured right ankle. Assuming he does, Stafford should face favorable conditions for rectifying his below-standard play the past two weeks. To be clear, Stafford hasn't been awful. Total Quarterback Rating tells us he played like a top-10 quarterback in the season's first five weeks but was essentially average in weeks 6 and 7. Broncos opponents are completing 68 percent of their passes and have a 104.2 passer rating, in both cases the second-highest total in the league. The Broncos have only three interceptions and are giving up 25.8 points per game, the fourth-worst total in the league. You hate to forecast a game based solely on past performance. So let's just say the Lions appear to have a good opportunity to right themselves Sunday in Denver.
Facing Tebow: Sunday will mark the NFC North's first extended regular-season meeting with Tebow. We can't let that opportunity pass in Final Word, can we? Here's all you need to know about the good and bad of the Broncos' new starter. Based on video review, ESPN Stats & Information has classified 14 of his 37 passes in 2011 as either an underthrow or an overthrow. That inaccuracy percentage of 37.8 is the highest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts. On the other hand, Tebow already has rushed for 96 yards this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 66.7 percent of those yards have come after first contact. So the Lions can expect a quarterback who has been better at running through defenders than he is throwing past them. Take that for what you will.
Avoiding history: The debut of rookie quarterback Christian Ponder gave the Minnesota Vikings a needed injection of life and competitiveness. But at 1-6, the Vikings have matched the worst start to a season in franchise history. The only team that started 1-7 was Minnesota's first team as an expansion franchise in 1961. That group finished 3-11. These Vikings can't use the expansion excuse, but with Ponder starting in place of veteran Donovan McNabb, they can at least argue they are building toward a better tomorrow.
Long history: There has been plenty of discussion about the Vikings' first game against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who already has seven rushing touchdowns and has proved to be an effective pocket passer as well. But it's worth nothing how thoroughly Panthers receiver Steve Smith has torched the Vikings in his career. Over a span of five games, Smith has caught 30 passes for 525 yards and three touchdowns. Smith has established a quick connection with Newton and is leading the NFL with 818 receiving yards. And as you know, the Vikings have suspended their best cornerback this season (Chris Cook) and aren't sure whether veteran Antoine Winfield (neck) will be ready for this game. Anchors aweigh.