Rejuvenated Detroit Lions aim for a big NFL season

TAMPA — Lions coach Jim Schwartz has seen firsthand the mojo return to the Motor City.

When Schwartz took over the Lions in January 2009, they were coming off an 0-16 season — owning the second-longest losing streak in NFL history — and the city's Big Three automakers were losing so much money, two were in the midst of receiving a $25 billion bailout from the federal government.

Boy, have times changed. The Lions who come into Raymond James on Sunday to face the Bucs in the season opener are one of the hot topics in the league. Their four-game winning streak to end last season and their undefeated preseason having brought back a football swagger to the team that mirrors the buzz in the city.

"In a lot of ways, the atmosphere in town is on the up trend," Schwartz said. "The Tigers just took an 8½ game lead (in the American League Central on Tuesday night), the Big Three (car companies) are making money again. There's excitement about the Lions, and I think all of it ties together. Detroit is a city on the rebound, and I think the Lions are a team that has rebounded and expects good things."

The Lions, who finished last season 6-10, are a popular pick to surprise this year; Sports Illustrated's Peter King predicts they'll finish 10-6, two games better than Tampa Bay. Like the Bucs, Detroit is a young team on the rise, with a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and is built around its defensive line, which includes defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who racked up 10 sacks in earning All-Pro honors last season in his rookie year.

"It's not just the city of Detroit," Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib said. "You turn on ESPN, NFL Network, a lot of people have got a lot of good things to say about Detroit. And we see it on tape; we're not knocking them or nothing. We know they're a pretty good team. We've got to bring our 'A' game if we want to do something."

The Bucs haven't forgotten that one of the Lions' late-season wins last season came in Tampa, a 23-20 overtime victory Dec. 19 that snapped Detroit's 26-game road losing streak and essentially crushed Tampa Bay's playoff hopes. Detroit star wide receiver Calvin Johnson said the team "took a lot of pride" in spoiling the Bucs' season.

"We definitely had a bad taste in our mouth after that game, and it just carried over into this year," Bucs defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "In the back of our minds, we remember the game, and it'll be something we remember when we walk out onto the field."

Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound playmaker, was a big reason the Lions prevailed in last year's game, racking up 10 catches for 152 yards.

"There are a lot of wide receivers that are big," Schwartz said. "There are a lot of wide receivers that are fast. There are a lot of wide receivers that have good hands. There are a lot of wide receivers that are conscientious, and there are a lot of guys that are hard workers. Calvin embodies all those things. … He's a player that at any time can break out and make a big play."

The Bucs will have Talib back to help cover Johnson, nicknamed "Megatron," and Bucs Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph will be there to help block Suh in an anticipated matchup between two touted lines.

But the Lions will have Stafford, who was injured for last year's game and replaced by third-stringer Drew Stanton. Stafford, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009 (taken 16 spots ahead of Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman), overcame offseason shoulder surgery to compile a 154.7 quarterback rating in four preseason games.

"Matthew Stafford had an outstanding preseason," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "He was very consistent, threw the ball well, very accurate. When you go No. 1 in the draft, you're a pretty good football player, and he's certainly that."

The Lions, who last made the playoffs 11 years ago, have their town believing in them again.

Suh said he has had fans tell him, "I can finally be proud of the Detroit Lions."

"I think people in other towns are laughing at this. I'd say it's over 50 percent of fans are talking playoffs," said Sean Baligian, longtime sports talk radio host at WDFN-AM 1130 in Detroit. "It's crazy."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Rejuvenated Detroit Lions aim for a big NFL season 09/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2011 12:15am]

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