Recent results cannot be any more opposite for the Detroit to-head Sunday at Ford Field as part of the second week of this young NFL season.
The Lions enter their 2011 home opener riding a tidal wave of momentum that began when the long-struggling franchise closed out this past season with four consecutive wins. That surge was followed by an unbeaten preseason in which Detroit outscored the opposition by a head-turning 114-47 margin, and the team's success further carried over into last weekend's matchup at Tampa Bay.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford overcame a shaky start to throw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, two of which landed in the hands of star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as the Lions came through with a hard-earned 27-20 victory over the talented Buccaneers. The win was the first in a season opener since 2007 for a Detroit team that's endured 10 straight losing campaigns and last made the playoffs in 1999.
The Lions' five straight triumphs marks the club's longest winning streak since a seven-game outburst from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 1995.
The Chiefs were believed to have arrived after ending a three-year run of futility by winning 10 games and capturing the 2010 AFC West title in head coach Todd Haley's second season. This year's edition hasn't even remotely resembled a contender, however, as Kansas City dropped all four of its preseason tests and was then walloped on its home turf last Sunday by a Buffalo squad that registered a mere four victories a year ago.
Kansas City generated little on offense and failed to stop the Bills on defense in a 41-7 shellacking that now stands as the most lopsided first-game setback in team history. The Chiefs mustered just 213 total yards on the afternoon and committed three turnovers in their own end that were converted into 17 Buffalo points.
To make matters worse, safety Eric Berry -- one of the cornerstones of an emerging Chiefs defense -- suffered a season-ending ACL tear during the first quarter of the contest and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.
After Berry went down, the Kansas City secondary was burned for four touchdown passes by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"I know we just lost one of our best players and that hurts," said Haley afterward. "That's one of those [injuries] that really digs you deep, first and foremost from a standpoint of I know how hard he works."
While Haley's charges will be seeking to avoid a downward spiral when they take the field on Sunday, the truth is Kansas City had lost its momentum long before last week's debacle and this spring's lockout. The Chiefs closed out their 2010 season with a pair of bad home defeats to Oakland and Baltimore, with the latter taking place in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs, and were outscored by a 61-17 count over the two games.
Perhaps a matchup against the opposite conference can get Kansas City back on track. The Chiefs went 4-0 against NFC competition during last year's playoff run and have prevailed in five straight bouts in interconference play.
The Chiefs have a 7-4 advantage in this overall series and had won four straight over the Lions before Detroit came through with a 25-20 home victory when these teams last met back in 2007. Kansas City had come out on top in two consecutive trips to the Motor City prior to that defeat, posting wins at the Silverdome in both 1987 and 1996.
This game marks the first head-to-head meeting between Haley and Detroit's Jim Schwartz, as well as the first-ever encounter for both head coaches against their opposing team.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City fell behind big early on against the Bills, which forced the team to stray away from its run-first philosophy on offense that was so successful a year ago. The Chiefs topped the NFL with an average of 164.2 yards per game on the ground in 2010, with All-Pro dynamo Jamaal Charles finishing second in the league with 1,467 rushing yards and averaging a tremendous 6.4 yards per attempt. He carried the ball just 10 times last week, however, for a total of 56 yards. Buffalo also did an excellent job of neutralizing standout wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, with the 2010 Pro Bowl honoree managing just two catches for 17 yards, and the remaining members of the corps failed to establish themselves, leading to most of the passes thrown by quarterback Matt Cassel to be dump-offs in the direction of Charles (5 receptions, 9 yards, 1 TD) and scatback Dexter McCluster (5 receptions, 25 yards). Cassel completed 22-of-36 throws on the day, but compiled an anemic total of 119 yards and didn't have a gain longer than 20 yards. Injuries to some of the pass-catchers have contributed to that lack of production, as steady tight end Tony Moeaki tore his ACL during the preseason and rookie wideout Jonathan Baldwin -- the Chiefs' first-round choice in the 2011 draft -- is still on the mend from a broken thumb he incurred in a locker-room fight last month.
Expect the Lions to focus on keeping Charles' damage to a minimum, and the defense hopes to contain the dynamic back equally as well as it handled Tampa bruiser LeGarette Blount, whom Detroit limited to 15 yards on five carries in last week's win. That was an excellent first effort from a new-look unit that added veteran linebackers Stephen Tulloch (4 tackles, 1 sack last week) and Justin Durant (4 tackles) as free agents in the offseason with the intent of bettering the team's No. 24 overall ranking against the run from 2010. The Lions are more accomplished at pressuring the passer, with reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh and ends Kyle Vanden Bosch (3 tackles, 1 sack) and Cliff Avril the headliners of a crew that placed sixth in the league with 44 sacks last year. The secondary turned in a solid showing as well this past Sunday, with cornerback Chris Houston (7 tackles) credited with three pass breakups along with a key interception of Bucs triggerman Josh Freeman that stopped a potential first-half scoring drive.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Stafford (305 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) was a bit rusty early on in the oft- injured quarterback's first start since last November, but bounced back from a first-quarter interception that was returned for a score to orchestrate a stretch of three consecutive long touchdown drives that gave Detroit a comfortable 27-13 lead heading into the final period. Naturally, the 2009 No. 1 overall pick benefited from the imposing presence of Johnson, who hauled in a team-best six passes for 88 yards and two scores in the win, with reliable counterpart Nate Burleson (5 receptions, 60 yards) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (4 receptions, 57 yards) also making notable contributions. Running back Jahvid Best (72 rushing yards, 4 receptions) also serves as a valuable asset to the Lions' potent passing game, with the young speedster coming through with 58 catches as a rookie last year, but he's only averaged 3.3 yards per rush attempt during his brief career. As a team Detroit averaged just 100.8 yards per game on the ground in 2010, the 23rd-best total in the league.
The Chiefs will need to improve upon the 208 yards and four touchdowns they surrendered to Fitzpatrick a week ago to have a chance on Sunday, and an adequate substitute for Berry must be found as well, as the defense had particular trouble covering the tight end once the fifth overall selection of last year's draft was removed from the game. Veteran Jon McGraw took over at strong safety following the injury and finished with a team-best eight tackles, but the 32-year-old career special-teamer still presents a big drop- off in terms of athleticism. The cornerback tandem of Brandon Flowers (2 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) and Brandon Carr (3 tackles) is a good one, and Kansas City also boasts one of the game's elite pass rushers in outside linebacker Tamba Hali (6 tackles), the AFC's leader with 14 1/2 sacks last season who added another in last week's loss. The Chiefs will also need to do a better job of defending the run after permitting the Bills' Fred Jackson to rush for 112 yards on 20 attempts in the opener, though nose tackle Kelly Gregg and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (5 tackles) are both proven to be proficient in that department.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Charles represents the x-factor of Sunday's clash, as he's undeniably the Chiefs' best weapon as well as the only true game-breaker on an offense that's been in a serious funk ever since the end of last season. If Haley and offensive coordinator Bill Muir can turn him loose and get Kansas City to run the ball with the authority it did when it was winning games in 2010, this one could get very interesting. Conversely, if the Lions can contain the Chiefs' ground game and force the struggling Cassel to make plays with his arm, they should have no problem extending their current streak.
The Chiefs will need to tighten things up in the secondary, especially when defending the middle of the field, to prevent Stafford to be throwing at ease like Buffalo's Fitzpatrick did in last week's opener. The defense could also use someone to step up and provide a secondary pass-rushing threat opposite Hali, as it's critical for Kansas City to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Tampa Bay wasn't able to do so against the Lions last Sunday, and paid the price as a result.
Turnovers. Kansas City was a plus-10 in the takeaway/giveaway ratio in winning 10 of its first 15 outings of 2010. In the team's three losses since, it's turned the ball over 10 times while forcing just four. The Chiefs simply don't have the weapons to outscore the Lions without getting some breaks along the way.
While it's still too early to declare the Lions as being truly for real, it's become abundantly clear that the Chiefs aren't. Kansas City hasn't been competitive in the least in its last three efforts under Haley, and injuries at a number of key spots have really taken its toll on a team that doesn't possess a whole lot of depth. With Detroit sporting a more talented roster than a Buffalo team that drilled the Chiefs in the opener, this one has the potential to get ugly if Kansas City can't regain its missing mojo.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 27, Chiefs 10