Monday December 5th, 2011

With his team in the spotlight for its oft-penalized play, Jim Schwartz watched the Lions shoot themselves in the foot with a number of costly penaltiies against the Saints Sunday. (AP)

A pretty clear pecking order has been established in the NFC.

Up top, obviously, are the Packers. Right behind them, you have the upstart 49ers and the Saints, who moved to 9-3 and closed in on a division title with Sunday night's 31-17 win over Detroit.

Then you have a huge  mess of teams, including the Bears, Falcons, Giants, Cowboys and those Lions fighting to make the playoffs and prove they can play with the big boys.

And here's the frustrating thing for the Lions: They know they can strap 'em up and compete. They took San Francisco to the wire earlier this year, stifled the powerful Packers offense for an entire half on Thanksgiving and, now, gave the Saints a run. But time and again, everything unravels.

Against the Packers, Detroit came crashing down after the now-infamous Ndamukong Suh stomp. Ten days later, back on the national-TV stage, the Lions' discipline deserted them again. Be it Titus Young turning a 3rd-and-1 into a 3rd-and-16 with a post-whistle slap to the face of a Saints player or Stefan Logan throwing the ball at an opponent, Detroit continued to make mistake after mistake. The Lions were flagged 11 times for 107 yards in all, with many of the penalties derailing Detroit momentum at incredibly costly spots in the game.

Would a little more restraint here or there have led to Lions wins over the Packers or Saints? Maybe not. Still, if nothing else, those mental errors are keeping Detroit out of the upper echelon in the NFC. The talent appears to be there, but the focus does not.

As a result, we're 13 weeks into the NFL season and still wondering which Detroit team is the real deal. Is it the one that rolled over and fell behind 24-7 in the first half Sunday? Or is it the team that came out in the third quarter and dominated the Saints, pulling within 24-17?

There's no way to judge for sure, which means we're left wondering what will happen to the Lions down the stretch. They've shown they can play with anyone ... and also shown they can't get past the league's best.

New Orleans is in that upper echelon, but facing a similar conundrum.

Sure, the Saints look better than the mess of teams fighting to grab an NFC wild-card spot. But are they good enough to dethrone the champion Packers?

With apologies to the 49ers, who wrapped up their division Sunday and look headed toward a first-round playoff bye, New Orleans still seems like the best shot to pull it off. The Saints nearly did so in Week 1, coming within inches of completing a spectacular comeback at Lambeau Field.

On display against Detroit was more or less everything you normally get from the Saints. They'll have some shaky moments on defense, but more often than not will cover them up with sensational offensive performances.

In a lot of ways, they're just like the Packers -- explosive on one side of the ball, opportunistic on the other. They followed Green Bay's lead against Detroit, too, turning in a so-so performance and still managing to coast home with a win.

That, right now, is what separates New Orleans from Detroit. The Saints have been through the ringer and know what it takes to win; the Lions are still learning.

Where Detroit shot itself in the foot and missed chance after chance Sunday, New Orleans capitalized. The Saints' 24-7 halftime lead was no fluke -- Drew Brees picked Detroit apart in the first half, taking advantage of the Lions trying to cover Jimmy Graham with safeties and occasionally mixing in a home-run play, like he did on a 67-yard TD strike to Robert Meachem that left the Lions' Eric Wright looking like he was trying to tackle a ghost.

The Lions fought back, figuratively and too often literally, as they're wont to do. But it was a mismatch, a scrappy challenger trying to wait out a heavyweight.

The entire NFC wild-card race has that feel, really -- a group of decent but not great teams straining to make the big time. The top four teams in the wild-card picture (Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit and the Giants) all lost Sunday, further distancing the conference's top teams from its middle-of-the-road foes.

Maybe the gaps between the conference's teams aren't as overwhelming as they appear. New Orleans, after all, stood toe-to-toe with Green Bay, and Detroit at least made the Saints and Packers sweat a little bit.

Until someone proves otherwise on the field, though, the NFC's situation will remain unchanged -- Green Bay in a class by itself, San Francisco and New Orleans on the cusp and just about everyone else battling to stay in the conversation.

New Orleans' win over Detroit, especially given how the Lions did themselves in again, really did nothing more than keep the conference's status quo. At some point, some team figures to shake the whole thing up. The Saints could do it by downing the Packers in the playoffs, just like the Lions could do it by qualifying for the postseason and taking a run at New Orleans or another division winner. Until then, it's business as usual, which is why the veteran and reliable Saints walked off with a victory Sunday night over the untested, undisciplined visitors from Detroit.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.