Detroit is atop the NFC North with a 6-2 record, a position strikingly similar to where the Lions were around this time last year. After starting 6-3 in 2013, they ended up 7-9, frittering away a great chance to make the playoffs. So it's understandable that fans are a bit cautious in their excitement this season.
"That's a natural reaction because it's happened. It's imploded before," center Dominic Raiola said. "But this is different, this is a new year."
The most obvious difference is a new coaching staff. Jim Caldwell took the helm last offseason after Jim Schwartz was fired. Although Detroit's offense has not taken off under the new regime, the Lions have generally been able to avoid the types of mistakes in the fourth quarter that plagued them last year.
Instead, opponents have been making crucial errors late in games, and Detroit has taken advantage, rallying for one-point wins over Atlanta last weekend and New Orleans in the game before that. The Lions have this weekend off before hosting Miami on Nov. 9.
"We found ways to win the last two weeks, and I wouldn't have done it any other way than how we have done it," wide receiver Golden Tate said.
Detroit has a one-game lead over Green Bay in the division, and the Lions already beat the Packers. Detroit has the league's top-ranked defense — a unit that shut out Atlanta after the Falcons had taken a 21-0 halftime lead — and an offense that could improve significantly if Calvin Johnson can return to full strength.
Johnson has only 22 catches and hasn't played since Oct. 5 because of an ankle injury. The open date gives Johnson even more time to recover before the second half of the season.
Running back Reggie Bush has also been dealing with an ankle injury, further limiting Detroit's offense.
"There are no guarantees. I've gotten beyond that in my career, of ever even thinking that it's going to be absolutely perfect," Caldwell said. "Very rarely do you go through an entire season and have the same group of guys to work with for the entire season, or get the number of guys back that you think you'll get back and all that kind of stuff. If you hinge your thought process on anything of that nature, you're setting yourself up for a letdown."
Tate has been perhaps Detroit's most valuable player after leaving Super Bowl champion Seattle to sign with the Lions. He has 55 catches for 800 yards, a pace in line with what Johnson usually produces. Tate turned a short completion into a 73-yard touchdown to begin Detroit's late comeback against New Orleans. His 59-yard touchdown catch from Matthew Stafford on third-and-25 was a key play last weekend.
The defense, meanwhile, has been able to rely on star lineman Ndamukong Suh and linebacker DeAndre Levy, who have been healthy and productive. It's because of that stingy defense that the Lions have overcome their problems on offense and with the kicking game.
When the Lions started 6-3 last season, hey had a good chance to win their first NFC North title and first division crown of any kind since 1993. Division rivals Green Bay and Chicago dealt with injuries at the quarterback spot, but Detroit couldn't take advantage, losing six of its last seven games despite leading in the fourth quarter of all of them.
Now the Lions must fend off a healthy Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but after withstanding plenty of adversity already, Detroit's outlook is encouraging. Although the Packers are only one game back, Chicago and Minnesota are both three games behind. The next three games on Detroit's schedule are against teams with winning records — Miami, Arizona and New England. But that's followed by three in a row at home against Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota, all of which are below .500.
"Last year or years past we were doing good, we were at a good place," Raiola said. "This year we went through our trials and whatnot, so we're 6-2, but there's a lot of improvement that can happen and that's going to happen."