The Lions' game Sunday against the Washington Redskins might very well be more than just the halfway mark in their 2004 NFL season; it might also be the crossroads.
The Lions have staggered through the first seven games of the season with more ups than downs, but just barely.
Thanks to an unexpected turnaround that has enabled them win three of their first four road games -- beating Chicago, Atlanta and the New York Giants -- the Lions are 4-3 going into game eight at Ford Field in Detroit.
Furthermore, they have done it with a little sleight of hand by coach Steve Mariucci -- winning in spite of a batch of injuries to key players, winning in spite of the lack of a substantive running game and winning with only part-time availability from the two promising young receivers -- Charles Rogers and Roy Williams -- who were supposed to put some punch into the passing game.
They have looked downright inept in two of the losses -- 30-13 against Philadelphia and 38-10 against Green Bay -- but Mariucci has somehow kept them believing and they are still in the thick of the NFC North race, just one game behind the Minnesota Vikings.
But they badly need a win against the Redskins on Sunday or their world might suddenly begin deteriorating around them.
A win would lift them to 5-3 and give them a cushion going into back-to-back road games against Jacksonville and Minnesota, with Indianapolis next on the schedule in the traditional Thanksgiving Day game.
It would be difficult for all except the most fervent Lions believers to expect them to survive those three games unscathed.
The Redskins are struggling themselves with a 2-5 record, but defensively -- the loss to Green Bay aside -- they are still ranked as one of the best against both the run and the pass.
If the Lions can get Williams, their prize rookie wide receiver, back into action after missing two of the last three games with a sprained ankle and if they can get fullback Cory Schlesinger, the valued lead blocker, back from a pulled hamstring, they still might have a shot at beating Washington.
A win and they not only will have matched last year's victory total in the first half of the 2004 season, they will be in a position to make a run for a playoff berth or at least a chance to break even for the season.
For a team that has struggled so sadly with just 10 wins total in the past three seasons, it would be a major accomplishment.
A loss to the Redskins might mean they aren't as close to being competitive as Mariucci would like to think. A loss might send them on their way to more of the same frustration they have experienced over the last three years.
--For a fullback who has carried the ball only once for two yards and caught just three passes for 43 yards, Cory Schlesinger certainly leaves a hole when he's out of the Lions lineup, as he has been the past three weeks with a hamstring injury.
It appears there is a good chance Schlesinger, a 10-year veteran, will be back for the game Sunday against Washington, and that is good news for coach Steve Mariucci.
"It'll be nice to have Cory back," said Mariucci. "He hasn't played all that much this year for us, and we need him. You've got to keep in mind over years he's probably a 50-58 percent playing time guy at fullback.
"That's about what you get out of your fullback in this offense with all the one-back sets, but then, he could start on all four special teams if you'd let him. And he would like to, but I don't let him."
Early in his career with the Lions, that's how Schlesinger kept a job -- with his special-teams play on both the coverage and the return teams. As he developed into a lead blocker, however, he wanted to keep as much of his special-teams duty as possible. And still does.
"He won't be doing all of it," Mariucci said, "but just getting him back would be great. He's our best lead blocker. He can carry the ball and catch the ball, he's a versatile guy and we need him back."
BY THE NUMBERS: 200 -- The number of games kicker Jason Hanson will have played in a Lions uniform, assuming he stays healthy for the game Sunday against Washington. It will tie him with former linebacker and kicker Wayne Walker, who played from 1958 through 1972.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That wasn't enough. Fourteen carries in a football game is not enough, especially when you're trying to establish the ground game." -- Lions coach Steve Mariucci on the need to continue working on the running game after just 13 rushing plays (two more were changed at the line of scrimmage) Sunday at Dallas.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brett Favre left for Mississippi on Wednesday afternoon as most of the Packers departed Green Bay after two days of practice for a four-day vacation during their bye week.
For Favre, who has been hit with an astonishing number of personal tragedies as well as injuries, the bye hardly could have come at a better time.
This has been one of the most draining seasons in Favre's 14-year career.
"I would say yes. At the present time, yes," Favre said. "A lot has happened. I think the older you get, the more you're aware and conscious of how important some things are and how precious things are that you take for granted."
Favre wasn't talking about football.
His brother-in-law, Casey Tynes, was killed in an ATV accident on Favre's property in Mississippi last month. A week later, his wife Deanna was diagnosed with breast cancer. His father, Irvin, died late last year.
"A lot has happened, but it's things that I can't control," Favre said. "In the past, it's been things that I can deal with. This year, and last year with Dad passing away, it's something you have no control over and you have to deal with as a family. That is difficult, but I don't think it's anything we can't handle."
Favre is playing very well again this season, his 13th in Green Bay. He turned 35 in October, but his play has hardly missed a beat.
The difference between the Packers and the Redskins on Sunday basically was at quarterback.
Matched against a three-time Pro Bowl selection in former teammate Mark Brunell, Favre made it a mismatch just by being himself, warts and all.
Three times Favre completed absolutely exquisite throws on scoring drives leading to points, not to mention another that would have been a 57-yard touchdown if Donald Driver hadn't dropped it.
The Redskins will rue the illegal-motion penalty with 2 1/2 minutes left that wiped out their dramatic go-ahead touchdown in what ultimately turned out to the Packers' 28-14 victory. But was anyone betting against Favre producing at least a field goal if Clinton Portis' 43-yard touchdown reception had stood?
"I thought, 'OK, we have to go out and run our two-minute offense,' " guard Marco Rivera, the nine-year veteran, said matter-of-factly. " 'It's on us to protect Brett. Brett will win it.' "
With Favre delivering the deep ball better than he ever has, the Packers have won three straight to reach the bye week of their schedule with a 4-4 record. There still are seven teams in the NFC with better records, but the Packers are feeling good now.
"We're resurrected," fullback Nick Luchey said. "As long as we handle our business, they're (the Minnesota Vikings) going to lose enough games so we'll be fine at the end."
The Redskins game probably wouldn't even rank among the top 100 on Favre's greatest-game list. Playing with a badly bruised and swollen right hand from last week that got worse with a shot to his thumb during the game, Favre unloaded three interceptions that set up two touchdowns and almost led to the third.
"Favre did the thing he's always done a little bit of," Vikings director of pro personnel Paul Wiggin said. "He threw three of 'em up there, and one gave them life there at the end."
Favre has lost his running dimension but, according to Wiggin, has improved in ways other than long-ball accuracy.
"Favre has compensated," he said. "He's grown each successive year in awareness throughout his career. Now that he's not running anymore he always has something in his peripheral vision. Favre is so magical getting the ball out of there."
"It's hard to believe that we are sitting here talking about 4-4 being a great place to be," Favre said. "But considering we were 1-4 not too long ago, we'll take it."
Favre said his hand should be fine for the Nov. 14 game against Minnesota.
--The Packers are prepared to live with less playing time for Ahman Green just as the indomitable running back is prepared to endure Achilles tendon pain for the rest of the season. He continues to miss extensive practice time.
"It's an irritant, but it's OK," running backs coach Johnny Roland said. "He's a tough guy and he'll fight through it."
Green, 27, has played 64 percent of the offensive snaps, down from 71.2 percent last year. Assuming backups Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher are healthy, Roland said the ideal playing time for Green would be 55 percent to 60 percent.
"For one guy to carry the load, it's just too hard," he said. "Over the course of the season you're going to wear out."
Green played 65.5 percent in the first three games, then 81.1 percent in Weeks 4-5. However, his playing time has decreased to 53 percent in the last three games.
The soreness in Green's Achilles has dogged him since training camp. He gained some relief after the equipment staff recently modified his shoe.
"It's not an abrasion," Roland said. "It's a soreness that just won't go away. I don't know if it's getting worse. It's just not getting any better.
"I'm sure it's painful after the games. But during the week he lets it rest, and it quiets down and he's ready to go again on Sunday."
BY THE NUMBERS: Only four teams in Green Bay since the Lombardi era ended in 1967 have won at least three of their first four road games in a season. Besides the current one, the others were in 1972 (division champs), 1996 (Super Bowl champs) and 2002 (division champs).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's got an aura about him that's welcoming. That's what you value on teams. Plus, he's a hell of a ballplayer." -- DE R-Kal Truluck on NT Grady Jackson, who has played extremely well in the last two games after missing all but three plays of the first six with a knee injury.
Sunday's loss to the Giants was a damaging blow to a team that figures it needs 11 victories to guarantee an NFC North Division title and a favorable position entering the playoffs.
A victory would have given the Vikings six wins with four games left at the Metrodome, where the Vikings are 121-64. The loss means the Vikings likely have to win two of their remaining five road games, which won't be easy.
The first test is Monday night at Indianapolis in a game that likely won't include WR Randy Moss because of his strained right hamstring. It's the Vikings' third prime-time road game of the season. They lost 27-16 at Philadelphia on a Monday night and beat New Orleans 38-31 on a Sunday night.
"It's tough to win on the road, but to win on the road in a night national TV game, it's even tougher," coach Mike Tice said. "Then to have three nationally televised games on the road in one season -- I don't know that anyone else has that course that has been charted for them."
That isn't the only schedule quirk the Vikings aren't happy with. On Nov. 14, they play at Green Bay a week after the Packers' bye. They lost to the Packers at home last season a week after Green Bay had a bye.
"Two years in a row getting to play Green Bay after their bye?" Tice said. "I mean, that's a hell of a course that has been charted for us."
For the second consecutive season, the Giants have thrown a wrench into the Vikings' season. Last year, the Vikings were 6-0 when a loss to the Giants at home started a 3-7 slide that knocked them out of the playoffs.
This season, the Vikings are 5-2 with a tougher schedule ahead of them. Four games remain against the second-place Lions (4-3) and third-place Packers (4-4). And there's another December trip to Chicago, which beat the Vikings at Soldier Field in December last season.
AFC South leader Jacksonville (5-3) and NFC West co-leader Seattle (4-3) also visit the Metrodome. And there's another outdoor cold-weather game Jan. 2 at Washington.
Basically, the Vikings figure they can lose three more games, as long as they aren't to Detroit or Green Bay, because of tiebreaker rules.
That's probably why you're seeing the Vikings leaning toward not playing the injured Moss on Monday night. They need him for Green Bay a week later more than they need him at Indianapolis in a game they probably would lose even if he were healthy.
Coach Mike Tice spent a lot of time this week talking about the need for change with WR Randy Moss' hamstring still not close to 100 percent.
At first, Tice said the team needed to change its "personality." He changed it to "approach" after a local columnist criticized him.
Not sure what the difference is, but, either way, the point was that the Vikings' offensive schemers need to wake up and realize Moss probably won't play this week against the Colts and probably won't be healthy again until the Nov. 21 Lions game or the Nov. 28 Jaguars game.
The Vikings believe the return this week of RB Onterrio Smith comes at a good time. Smith won't start if rookie RB Mewelde Moore's left ankle is healthy enough for him to play. But look for Smith to get the most carries and make the biggest impact of all the running backs.
"After Moss, Smith is the guy whose style gets us going better than anyone else," Tice said.
--WR Marcus Robinson has been walking around with his sprained left foot in a protective walking boot. He said it's only a precaution and that he won't miss any playing time, especially if WR Randy Moss (strained right hamstring) isn't able to play. "Me and Randy both out? Puh-leeze," said Robinson as he hobbled away.
--The Vikings extended their NFL record for consecutive games with a rushing average of at least 4.0 to 17. The previous record was 14 by the 1975-76 Steelers and 1964-65 Browns.
--The Vikings gave up only 283 yards of offense in Sunday's 34-13 loss to the Giants. But they also gave up four rushing touchdowns of 5 yards or fewer. "We looked good when it came to yards allowed," said defensive end Lance Johnstone. "But not on touchdowns allowed."
--The Vikings have more victories in November (100-78-4) than any other month. But they're 2-4 against the Colts in November.
--QB Daunte Culpepper, an early leader in the MVP race, struggled against the Giants without a healthy Randy Moss and a complementary running attack. Culpepper posted season lows for completion percentage (57.1) and passer rating (60.7). "It's almost like you have to remind people that Superman is human," receiver Nate Burleson said. "Daunte, he's a great player. But we got to do the things as a supporting cast to help him out."
--RB Mewelde Moore leads all NFL rookies in rushing yards (376) and rushing/receiving yards (614). Rookie DE Kenechi Udeze leads all NFL rookies in sacks (3.0).
--Culpepper has played the Colts only once. He was 7 of 10 passing for 97 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 134.2 passer rating in a 31-10 loss at Indianapolis in 2000.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm pretty sure that after losing this game there are people who will think this is the same team that fell apart last year. And we're not. We're going to show that next week in Indianapolis." -- WR Kelly Campbell, speaking after Sunday's 34-13 loss to the Giants.