Lions have a winning record and a shot at glory

It’s a winning season. Begin with that. The Lions won their ninth game Sunday to ensure a victorious record, the first in three years. Big stuff.

Next, there’s December. The Lions have been abysmal in that month. Sunday’s 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay was their first in December since 2011.

“Jeez,” Calvin Johnson said, surprised. “I didn’t know it was a couple of years.”

No more.

Then there’s Matthew Stafford. The Lions’ quarterback is settling down and lasering in, two straight games over 75% completion and more than 300 yards passing. On Sunday, he not only ripped passes over the middle to Johnson and found him on a long bomb and a touchdown fade, but he even cleaned up some spills, like a bad snap off a teammate’s leg that the quarterback chased, scooped and threw away.

“I got a candy hop,” Stafford said, smiling, using the old baseball parlance, “picked it up and threw it to first base.”

Stafford is now hitting the passes he should and not making the ones he shouldn’t. No interceptions Sunday. None the previous game. He shook off four Tampa Bay sacks like a dog shakes off water.

“He’s hitting his stride,” coach Jim Caldwell said.

So, all good, right?

This brings us to the running game.

Too many short gains

On the surface, everyone seemed happy with that, too. After all, the Lions broke 100 yards, one of the few times they’ve done that this season.

But most of that was on a single play. Joique Bell busted loose on a first-down carry for 57 yards. It was, arguably, the most important play of the game. It came in the fourth quarter, after the Buccaneers had cut the lead to 27-17. The Lions were backed up deep, and there were more than 8 minutes left.

Once Bell broke free, the Lions were in Tampa Bay territory and the Ford Field crowd was electric. “You felt great at that point,” Stafford said, “that we were gonna win the game.”

So Bell’s run, to mix metaphors, was the straw that broke the camel’s Buc. All good, right?

But before that, the Lions had tried Bell 14 times for 24 yards. And Reggie Bush, who doesn’t seem very threatening anymore, had similar results.

Why does this matter? Only because, as the Lions go down the stretch, they have two important games, outside, in the cold, at Chicago and Green Bay. And if they make the playoffs, they could have more. Running the ball, as the year goes on, gets more crucial.

So is the fact that most of the teams the Lions are jockeying with for the playoffs — Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle, Green Bay — all averaged, entering Sunday, at least 4.2 yards a carry. Detroit averaged 3.3, second worst in football.

“We’d like to average around 4 a carry,” Caldwell said after the game. “(But) the thing about the running game that people don’t understand — it happens just like you saw it. There’s a big run in there somewhere that gets your numbers up. …

“Running the football takes patience. It takes time. … You’re just not gonna break a whole lot of long runs in this league.”

All of that is true.

But if you can’t break enough to move the chains, you put a lot of pressure on your passing game — or you do a lot of punting.

A shot at a playoff victory

If these were the old Lions, you might not care. Another yard per carry would be like putting lipstick on a pig. But fans have high hopes for this 9-4 team. It’s clear the defense can play with anyone. The passing game features one of the best young arms and arguably the best receiver. Not only can the Lions make the playoffs, they could win a game or two.

But while Dallas hands off to DeMarco Murray, Seattle to Marshawn Lynch, Green Bay to Eddie Lacy and Philadelphia to LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles, the Lions are frequently less imaginative: Bell off left tackle for 2 yards, off right tackle for 2 yards, up the middle for 2 yards.

This is no knock on Bell. He has been a find — even a savior, given the fates of Jhavid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Last year, when Bell and Bush were healthy, they made an unusual combo threat.

But the Lions might face hardship if, in order to keep the defense honest, they have to keep handing off for 1- or 2-yard gains. And if Bush doesn’t improve, and the offensive line doesn’t open bigger holes, what options do they have?

“Anytime you can get up over 100 some odd yards … I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t arrived yet, obviously.”

That’s OK. As Sunday proved, they’re arriving in other areas. It’s just that, when everything else on the table has improved, can you help but want to make it complete?

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