Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions are right where Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles were last year.
Coming off a rare playoff appearance, the Lions entered this season with high expectations. But they're 1-3 entering Sunday's game at Philadelphia, and getting dangerously close to falling out of contention before the midpoint of the season.
That's what happened to the Eagles in 2011. They came in with a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality and fell flat on their faces. They won their season opener, lost four in a row, struggled to a 4-8 record and needed a four-game winning streak at the end just to finish .500.
The Lions know they can't afford a loss this week if they want to compete in the NFC North. Minnesota and Chicago each are 4-1. It won't be easy going against the NFC East-leading Eagles (3-2).
"These guys can score at will on offense and stop you on defense," Stafford said. "Going into their place on the road is going to be a tough test for us. I don't know if it's a pivotal game. Maybe, maybe not. It's an important game."
Important is an understatement. Only five teams in NFL history have ever started 1-4 and reached the playoffs.
"We're a 1-3 football team and there's nothing else that we can do about that right now other than go play this next game," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "But you have to look at the reasons that you had success and the reasons that you failed. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we're a couple plays away from being 3-1. It doesn't matter, we're still 1-3. There's no consolation or anything else. But when I say we fine-tune, there's a difference between fine-tune and overhaul. We need to play better in some spots. We need to improve in some areas. No different than if we were 3-1 right now."
Like the Lions, the Eagles are real close to having a much different record. They're a play away from 4-1 or even 0-5. They've had a pair of 1-point wins on final-drive touchdowns, won another by 2 points when a 54-yard field goal was missed at the end and lost 16-14 to Pittsburgh last week on a last-second field goal.
Turnovers have been Philadelphia's biggest problem. Vick has six interceptions and five fumbles for 11 of the team's 14 giveaways. Five of those turnovers occurred inside the red zone, and two near the goal line.
"The games that we've played great, we were still behind," Vick said. "The only game we didn't turn the ball around, against New York, we pretty much had the lead the entire game. But you turn the ball over, you just put yourself in a bad position and a huge deficit if the opposition scores. The thing is you have a chance to go back out and try to do it again this week and try to do it the right way. I have a chance to go out and try to play another good football game in which I believe I can and I know I can. But it's not going to be easy. It's going to be a good football game this Sunday."
For the third straight week, the Eagles are playing a well-rested opponent. The Lions are coming off a bye. The Steelers were coming off a bye last week, and the Giants had 10 days between games when they faced Philadelphia on Sept. 30.
The Eagles will have a bye themselves after this game. Then they'll face Atlanta (5-0) on Oct. 28. The Falcons, you guessed it, will be coming off a bye. Philadelphia will be in the same position one more time against Washington in Week 11. The Redskins have their bye a week earlier.
"You're dealt things in the National Football League, you're dealt things in the game, each play you're dealt things and you just go about your business," coach Andy Reid said. "You do what you need to do. I don't worry about that. I worry about us taking care of our business. That's where the primary focus has got to be. There's small, fundamental things we have to take care of. We need to do it in practice, we need to do it in meetings, coaches and players need to take care of it."
Perhaps the biggest mystery for the Lions has been Stafford's inability to connect with Calvin Johnson for a touchdown. The duo hooked up for two TDs in each of the first four games last year and nine times in five games to lift the team to a 5-0 start.
Stafford finished with 41 TDs and 16 interceptions, and Johnson had 15 TDs. So far, Stafford has fewer TD passes (three) than interceptions (four) through four games.
Eagles cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be a tough challenge for Johnson this week.
"These guys have corners that can play," Stafford said. "You look at them on tape, they're shutting guys down."
Johnson presents problems because he lines up everywhere, including the slot. Asomugha could end up moving inside to cover him instead of staying outside.
"He's one of the top receivers in the league," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "He's a big-time threat, big target and he gets a lot of opportunities, gets a lot of attempts thrown at him. He's a special player, a very special player and we're going to have to make sure we cover him."
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