We know that the Lions have improved, at least a little, by virtue of their early season win over the New Orleans Saints compared to last year's 0-6 start. But how much better are they? Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears (2-3) will be a good gauge of exactly where they are.
Like all teams that face the Lions, the Bears look at this as a winnable road game. And why not? After all, didn't the Lions look at the Vikings game last Sunday as a winnable road game? Detroit even led most of that contest before allowing the Vikings to come back in the fourth quarter and take their first win of the season.
The Bears have the same attitude. Although their start has been a major disappointment for the team, they feel with a win at Ford Field they can right the ship and make a playoff run.
"This is a huge game for us," safety Mike Brown said. "This is a team we can beat. We know we can beat them, we've beaten them before and we are expected to win. We have to start off really fast. Whatever side of the ball we're on, get a three-and-out or score on our first drive, so we can play with confidence throughout the game."
That should be bulletin board material for the Lions.
But the bottom line is, Brown is right; that is, if these are last year's Lions. The question remains - have they progressed to the point that teams like Chicago can't take them for granted?
Here's where we begin to find out. Will they show enough progress to card a respectable 7-9, 6-10 season in the second year of an overhaul? Or will they end up with a 4-12, 3-13 record that has them just treading water from the previous season's 2-14 finish?
One realistic goal for the team is not to finish in last place. In fact, Detroit could finish as high as second in its division. With the Bears struggling on offense and battling injuries on defense combined with playing its home games at Champagne, IL has made them an average team. Only Green Bay has shown any signs of being a playoff team in the NFC North.
"The thing that bothers me the most," said Bears GM Jerry Angelo, "is our game against Philadelphia [in last season's playoffs] ...we didn't answer the bell. Our next big game was this past Monday night and we didn't answer the bell. That hurts. That bothers me. It's a pride thing and it's a maturity thing. You've got to be able to do that as a football team, to take that step that everybody wants to take."
Instead of taking the next step in becoming a Super Bowl contender, the Bears appear to be going backwards. They have lost two of their best players, tackle Ted Washington and linebacker Warrick Holdman for the season. Former Lion Alfonso Boone is starting in Washington's position for Chicago.
"This is nothing against Boone - he does a great job in there," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "It's just not Ted. His leadership out there is one of the biggest things we don't realize. He's vocal about stuff and just his play sets the tempo.
"Now they're able to get (blockers to him) because Ted's not there taking up guys. It's just different without Ted in there."
In addition, Phil Daniels and R.W. McQuarters have been out for several games. McQuarters is expected to play Sunday against Detroit. Despite all of this, the Bears feel they are better than Detroit.
"It's not confidence. We know we're still capable of being a good defense," Urlacher said. "It's just mentally, we screw up too much during the games and we make too many mistakes.
"Most of the guys who are new aren't screwing up. It's the old guys who are screwing up. So we've got to get that fixed and make some more plays."
On offense, Chicago has been less than stellar. Opponents have scored 15 touchdowns to Chicago's 13 and have 102 first downs to just 89 by the Bears. Most telling though, is the Bears run production. Anthony Thomas is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry and has scored just two touchdowns. This for a run-oriented offense that wants to pass just enough to keep defenses honest.
The result has been the teams have stacked the line of scrimmage with eight or nine men and dared the Bears to throw. While Marty Booker leads the NFC in catches with 37, most of them have been for short yardage. Only one has been for 40 or more yards.
Result? Chicago's offense ranks just 11 of 16 teams in the NFC.
Defensively, the Bears haven't fared much better. They are allowing opponents and average of 359 yards in total offense per game, while allowing teams and average of 5.8 yards per play.
Special teams are also hurting. With long snapper Patrick Mannelly suffering a knee injury, the Bears like will sign Ryan Benjamin to replace him. The Bears kick return group has really struggled to overcome the lost of threat David Terrell.
Bottom line question: Have the Lions progressed enough to take advantage of the only team in the NFL that seemingly has more injured players than they do?
Bottom line stat: Detroit ranks dead last in the NFC in both overall offense and defense. Those are not the kind of stats you expect to see from a team that is making progress.
Material from other sources including wire reports was used in this story