ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell was asked about "playoff fever" after his team's 7-2 start.
"We don't have it," he said. "We're wearing a white mask around here so we don't have to worry about it. But it's like I've said every week, they don't give out any awards or anything after nine games in the season. We haven't done anything yet."
Caldwell's cautious words sounded similar to what predecessor Jim Schwartz was saying at this time last year. The Lions were 6-3 and leading the NFC North, then lost six of their last seven games and Schwartz was fired. Now Caldwell is in charge — and in pretty much the same position atop the division — but the toughest stretch of Detroit's schedule may be underway.
The Lions pulled out a 20-16 win over Miami on Sunday, and now they have to play back-to-back road games against Arizona and New England.
"We've been playing well, we've been playing tough and that kind of stuff, but this is a long season. It's a journey and we're still on that journey," Caldwell said. "We've got the team with the best record in the National Football League coming up. You better get focused in on them quickly."
Arizona brings a five-game winning streak into Sunday's matchup with Detroit. The Cardinals (8-1) have not lost at home to the Lions since 1993, although they will be without quarterback Carson Palmer, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday.
That means Drew Stanton, a former Lion, is the likely starter for Arizona.
"He's a quality guy, and not only that, that's a really good football team with a real fine defense," Caldwell said. "The one thing about quarterbacks is that they don't have to go in there and do it alone. They can run the ball, they're a well-coached bunch and he's part of that. He can deliver the ball, he's an accurate guy, hasn't thrown an interception I don't think this year."
Detroit has not played a real road game since Oct. 12, when the Lions began their current four-game winning streak with a victory at Minnesota. They had to travel to London to play Atlanta on Oct. 26, but that was more of a neutral site — nothing like the hostile environments Detroit will encounter at Arizona and New England.
The Lions have dealt with injury problems all season, with Calvin Johnson missing a month before returning last weekend against Miami. Nick Fairley has been out with a knee injury, and offensive linemen Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle went down against the Dolphins. Caldwell did not shed much light on the progress of those two.
With the running game struggling, the offense has relied heavily on quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Golden Tate, with Johnson only now back in the fold. The last three games have come down to the wire, but Detroit won them by a combined six points.
"We just fight. We have a really, really good team. Unfortunately it keeps coming down to the end, but the game is never over until it says zero on the clock," Tate said.
NOTES: Caldwell was asked why the team doesn't use the no-huddle offense more often. "We have some of that in our system," he said. "I can just tell you that it depends on the system and how it fits your personnel. That doesn't necessarily fit our personnel the entire way through an entire ball game." Detroit has used the no-huddle on only 3.2 percent of its plays, the third-lowest mark in the NFL, according to STATS.
AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL