As modest as their 2-1 record might be, it still leaves the Lions in a position with which they have not been accustomed in recent years.
They will go to Atlanta for their game Sunday against the Falcons breathing the rare air of being a contender in the NFC North. To be exact, they are going to Atlanta tied for first place with the Minnesota Vikings.
And, while that might be routine for the Vikings or Green Bay Packers, it's a rarity for the Lions, who are coming off rebuilding seasons with records of 2-14, 3-13 and 5-11.
Their last 2-1 start was in 2000 under Bobby Ross and the last time they occupied first place in the division - three games into the season - was the previous year, when they finished with an 8-8 record.
The question is where do the Lions go from here?
They weren't expected to beat the Chicago Bears in the season opener, but they did, breaking their 24-game road losing streak in the process.
Many expected them to beat the Houston Texans in the home opener, and they did.
Very few gave them a chance to beat the re-energized Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago, and they didn't.
The Lions will be heavy underdogs again in Atlanta but, if they are going to make any kind of a breakthrough in the 2004 season, they're going to have to show some muscle against one of the better teams. The game Sunday will give them that opportunity.
The big problem for the Lions - aside from Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, of course - will probably be in running the football.
The Lions are averaging only 82.7 yards per game and will be without starting running back Kevin Jones (ankle) against an Atlanta defense that is limiting opponents to 62.8 yards per game.
"They have been very opportunistic in taking the ball away at the right time, preventing points and that sort of thing," Lions coach Steve Mariucci said. "As much notoriety as Michael Vick gets and his offensive abilities, it's really been - in a lot of ways - their defense that has been playing very well for them."
SERIES HISTORY - 30th meeting between the Lions and Falcons. The Lions have won 21 of the first 29 games but were demolished, 36-15, in the last meeting with the Michael Vick-led Falcons two years ago. The Lions are 13-3 at home against Atlanta.
BY THE NUMBERS
28 - Catches needed by wide receiver Roy Williams to set the record for receptions by a rookie in one season. Williams has 17 in the first three games. The Lions record is 44 by Dave Middleton in 1955.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"Well, it seems to be working out (laughing) and Michael's going to get better and better as he fits into this offense." - Lions coach Steve Mariucci on suggestions Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick might have problems fitting into the structured West Coast offense.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
-- CB Dre' Bly says he will try to play Sunday at Atlanta, but it might be a game-day decision. He suffered a sprained left knee in the season opener at Chicago and hasn't played since.
-- CB Andre Goodman was diagnosed with what seemed to be simply a strained thigh muscle but he has missed the last two games and - even after a week of rest during the bye - has not returned to the Lions practice field, an indication the team will be shorthanded in its secondary Sunday at Atlanta.
-- RB Artose Pinner is expected to get in greatly increased work load when the Lions play Sunday in Atlanta. Pinner is the backup to rookie RB Kevin Jones, who has a high ankle sprain and is not expected to play. Pinner is essentially a downhill runner, averaging 3.3 yards per carry on 17 rushing attempts this year.
-- QB Joey Harrington is off to the best start of his three-year NFL career with a 91.1 passer rating that puts him sixth among NFC quarterbacks. Harrington has completed a fraction less than 60 percent of his throws with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Coming into the season, he had a career passer rating of 62.2.
Green Bay Packers
Typically, a matchup of 1-3 teams would be a ratings disaster for Monday Night Football.
However, in this case, the Green Bay-Tennessee game has a lot of intrigue.
The Packers have nothing on the Titans when it comes to desperation and disappointment. Along with Kansas City, the Packers and Titans rank as the biggest flops in the first month of the NFL season. One will leave with a 2-3 record and renewed hope while the other will leave 1-4 needing to go 8-3 just to finish 9-7.
"Teams are not looking at us like, 'Oh, that's the big, bad Titans anymore,'" wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We've got to play like, 'Hey, we're fighting for our season now.' We're going to have a very bad season if we don't."
Since 1997, the Packers own the NFL's best record at 76-40, with the Titans second at 73-43. Tennessee didn't inherit the Oilers from Houston until that year but in seven seasons the franchise has been to the Super Bowl once and reached the playoffs four times.
Moreover, the Titans have had the same coach (Jeff Fisher), general manager (Floyd Reese), director of player personnel (Rich Snead), chief college scout (C.O. Brocato), quarterback (Steve McNair) and owner (Bud Adams) since the move.
All that continuity took a hit in the off-season when defensive linemen Jevon Kearse and Robaire Smith left in free agency, tight end Frank Wycheck retired and running back Eddie George was released.
The financial realities of trying to keep a perennial contender together meant the Titans had little salary-cap room to sign free agents. Whereas the Packers probably will be without two starters due to injury, five starters and a kicker are out for Tennessee: tight end Erron Kinney, guard Zach Piller, linebackers Peter Sirmon and Rocky Calmus, safety Lance Schulters and kicker Joe Nedney.
Tennessee's problem on defense is its' league-worst yield of 5.47 yards per rush. On offense, the Titans' dearth of a deep passing game is the reason they've crashed from first last year in average gain per pass attempt to 32nd this year.
"They're just not the same team and McNair just doesn't seem like the same guy," an assistant coach for a recent Titans' opponent said. "You lose Kearse, even Robaire Smith inside, and defensively they're a different team."
This will be McNair's second regular-season appearance at Lambeau Field. His matchup against Favre in a duel of former MVPs could be enthralling.
The ninth meeting. The series is tied, 4-4. The teams have split a pair of games since the franchise moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997.
BY THE NUMBERS
Counting playoffs, the Packers are 6-6 in their last 12 games at Lambeau Field. The last time they had a comparable record at Lambeau was 7-5 from mid-1999 to mid-2000. The last time the Packers had a worse record in Green Bay over a 12-game span occurred from their last home game of 1990 through the first home game of '93. In that stretch, they were 4-8.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We're scrambling to find a play that works. We're making it real tough on (offensive coordinator Tom) Rossley. Our bread-and-butter stuff isn't working." -- G Mike Wahle.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
It was an untenable situation. Cornerback Mike McKenzie had to go. He got his wish.
On Monday, McKenzie was traded to the Saints for a second-round pick in 2005 and quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. The Packers also threw in a conditional sixth-round pick in '06.
"This is my last day in Green Bay and that's a good thing for me," said McKenzie, who held out for 46 days before reporting Sept. 15 with three years remaining on his contract. "I have a lot of respect for the organization. As you know, a lot of the people who brought me in here, like Ron Wolf, are long gone. That's the business end of it and I understand that."
--QB Doug Pederson will miss the remainder of the year a with a broken rib and back damage that he suffered in the third quarter of the Giants' game. He has been placed on injured reserve.
--P Bryan Barker will take over for Pederson as the holder. Barker has been a holder throughout his entire career before coming to Green Bay, where Pederson had held for Ryan Longwell for years.
--LB Nick Barnett missed the tackle on Tiki Barber that allowed him to go 52 yards for a touchdown. "He gives outstanding effort," coach Mike Sherman said. "He's a quality middle linebacker."
--QB Craig Nall has moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Brett Favre with Pederson done for the year.
--QB Brett Favre sat out practice Wednesday but that was scheduled because of the long practice week. He has recovered from his concussion, according to coach Mike Sherman.
It's possible the Vikings will play without as many as seven of their regular starters. TE Jim Kleinsasser (knee) and RT Mike Rosenthal (foot) are on injured reserve. MLB E.J. Henderson (knee) is out for at least this game. WLB Chris Claiborne (calf) keeps saying he will play, but don't count on him playing or lasting long if he does. TE Jermaine Wiggins (hand) is likely a week away from playing, at least. RB Michael Bennett (knee) is out at least another two weeks, and his replacement and leading rusher, Onterrio Smith, is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
And that doesn't count nickel back Ken Irvin (Achilles'), who also is on injured reserve.
The good news on the injury front is C Matt Birk (ankle) will play unless he suffers a setback in practice.
The biggest concern is at linebacker. Rookie Dontarrious Thomas had 13 tackles at middle linebacker as an emergency replacement for Henderson in the Vikings' 27-22 victory over Chicago. He hadn't practiced or played in the middle since last season at Auburn.
Thomas has had an extra week to prepare for middle linebacker. But the Texans also have had an extra week to devise plays to fool him.
If Claiborne doesn't play, either Mike Nattiel or Raonall Smith will handle the weak-side job. The Vikings were disappointed in Nattiel's performance after Claiborne was injured on the second play of the Bears game. Nattiel lined up incorrectly on too many plays.
Smith seems to be gaining an edge in the competition with Nattiel. Smith is a big, fast linebacker who hasn't lived up to his potential since being drafted in the second round of the 2002 draft. Injuries have slowed him until this season.
This is the first meeting between the teams.
BY THE NUMBERS
0. The number of interceptions the Vikings have this season. They had eight picks through three games last season. They're also the only team in the league without an interception.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"There is good news on the horizon. Herschel Walker is going to come out of retirement and start for us this week." Coach Mike Tice, joking about the injuries and NFL suspension that have chopped away the Vikings' depth at running back.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
-- C Matt Birk returned to practice Wednesday. He missed the second half of the Bears game because of a sprained left ankle. Barring a setback, he'll play Sunday, keeping his streak of 67 consecutive starts intact.
-- RB Moe Williams was limited in practice Wednesday because of a calf injury. But that doesn't mean anything. The Vikings believe the 30-year-old veteran is savvy enough to play effectively without much practice.
-- LB Chris Claiborne tested his injured calf in practice Wednesday. He says he's going to play, but he has said that before and been wrong.
-- LB Raonall Smith has never been more active or healthy in his three seasons as a pro. With six special teams tackles, he already has tripled last season's totals. The former second-round draft pick spent his rookie season in 2002 on IR. He played in seven games last season, and all three games this season. He might even make his first NFL start at WLB this Sunday.
-- CB Antoine Winfield doesn't act like a $35 million cornerback. He is second on the team in tackles (28) and also third in special teams tackles with three. He's by far the best tackler on the team.