Win in Cleveland Critical for Lions

ALLEN PARK - Five games into the season, the Detroit Lions (2-3) still must be counted as the favorites in the NFC North. Now before you want to administer the breathalyzer test take a look at the landscape in the division.

Minnesota has the look of a reeling football team, shrouded in scandal after the sex-boat incident on Lake Minnetonka and Dante Culpepper mired in a funk without his favorite target Randy Moss. Chicago has a super strong defense but no semplance of a passing game with rookie Kyle Orton behind center. Green Bay finally broke out of an 0-4 funk against the Saints, but has the toughest schedule remaining of any of the NFC North contenders.

For Detroit though, look at what the team has coming up in the next few weeks; a winnable game against a struggling (2-3) Cleveland team on the road, then a must-win contest at home against the Bears. It's a must-win because Chicago is the team most likely to mount a .500 record in the division and if the two teams tie, the Bears would have the tie-breaker over the Lions by virtue of a sweep head-to-head.

That's why Sunday's contest is so important.

Detroit has already been robbed of a road win (in Tampa Bay when Joey Harrington's TD pass to Marcus Pollard was overruled by a semi-blind NFL official) and gave away another last week when Carolina roared back behind Chris Weinke to steal a game Detroit had nearly salted away.

Instead of being 4-1, the Lions now find themselves in a tie with Chicago atop the division and need to get on a semi-roll to avoid falling behind their main rivals.

Most of the talk this week surrounds Steve Mariucci's impending decision to dump fourth-year starter Joey Harrington in favor of backup Jeff Garcia. Its a critical decision because, with Harrington scheduled to make over $5 million each of the next two seasons, if he isn't the starter, he likely has no future in Detroit and will be released, if not at season's end, then shortly after June 1st of 2006 for salary cap purposes.

In the interim, Detroit is simply looking for a spark for its struggling offense.

Harrington has displayed a tendency to start quickly, fade and eventually fizzle out completely throwing the football. He has not picked up the hot reads on blitz packages. He has missed open receivers and worse, led many of them into heavy hits by defenders.

Garcia on the other hand is an unproven commodity at this point. He did not play well in the preseason, the only time fans have had a chance to observe him, but has looked sharp in practices this week.

Still with Harrington the lowest rated passer in the league, something has to be done to perk up the teams offense and Garcia, a veteran who has been to three pro-bowls running this system, would be a logical move. Lions head coach Steve Mariucci says he doesn't care who's playing the position, he has certain expectations.

"Who ever is playing quarterback for us is still playing with the same supporting cast that is available to us this week. Who ever that guy is, I want him to be efficient, be good with the ball, make good decisions, get the most out of every play, help us make third down conversions and move the sticks and get it in the end zone and all those sort of things, who ever it may be."

Cleveland has quarterback problems of their own.

Quarterback Trent Dilfer has struggled in Cleveland's pro-style system. The Browns want to emphasize a strong running game and play action passing, which would seem to be Dilfer's strength. However in the team's 16-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Dilfer did not play well, going just 16-of-30 for 147 yards, turning the ball over three times (two fumbles, one interception) and getting sacked four times.

Coach Romeo Crennel denied hinting that he would think of starting former Akron star Charlie Frye over Dilfer Sunday, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

"I think that was some of the writers around here being overzealous. I didn't make any statements about the quarterback specifically. What I told them was that we are going to evaluate the team and see what we need to do to improve. If that involves personnel changes, then we would make personnel changes at whatever position it was.

"They (the writers) took that to mean (Trent) Dilfer and (Charlie) Frye. I never said that. Today I told them that I am not making any personnel changes. Yes (Dilfer) will start."

Crennel said he feels Detroit's defense is beginning to play up to their potential. "I see a lot of guys who have talent who are playing very hard and running to the football, who are aggressive, who are getting turnovers and therefore allowing their team to win games," he said.

Defensively, Crennel said the Browns will prepare as if Harrington will start and today, spend some time, just in case, for Garcia, who was Cleveland's starter a season ago. He said the Browns will do just as Baltimore and Carolina - Detroit's last two opponents did - make stopping running back Kevin Jones job one.

"Jones is an excellent runner," said Crennel. "I showed the guys the Baltimore film where he was running over Ray Lewis consistently, so I think we better stop that first. Then, in the west coast style of attack, they like to get the ball out quick, so we are going to try to disrupt that west coast style passing game by being on the receivers and getting people in his (Joey's) face.

"We have had trouble getting in anyone's face, so I think what you have is two teams that are 2-3 and both teams need a victory. It should be a hard fought game, because basically you have equal teams going against each other."

PROGNOSIS:
Look for Mariucci to start Harrington, giving him his last gasp chance to hold on to his job. If Harrington plays well, it just gives Garcia another week to get healthier - if he doesn't look for Garcia to go in when Harrington starts to struggle. Regardless of whether Garcia plays well or not, he's likely to keep the job permanently once he gets into the game.

There's a reason Mariucci wanted Garcia and Garcia wanted to be here, the two have a deep seated and trusting relationship built over the success they both had in San Francisco. Garcia was outspoken in condeming the 49ers management for firing Mariucci. Mariucci fought to get Garcia here in Detroit when other players were being brought in as possible backups.

Mariucci knows the NFC North is Detroit's for the taking and he wants to have a player behind center he trusts. He also has seen the bickering between Harrington and some of his receivers, his center and the defensive unit. He cannot allow the team to implode when a division title is at stake.

Detroit 23 - Cleveland 17


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