Sunday a Statement Game for Lions

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.

(ALLEN PARK) -- 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 were expected to beat the Chicago Bears in the season opener, and 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.

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