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Same old Lions? Not under the steady Caldwell; more Week 10 Snaps

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review a predictably unpredictable Week 10 in the NFL. ...

• As it turns out, Arizona’s Bruce Arians isn’t the only ex-Indianapolis Colts head coach building a strong case in this season’s crowded Coach of the Year race. 

How do you like Jim Caldwell now, Detroit? He didn’t earn too many plaudits when he was hired in January, but Caldwell’s lightly regarded Lions are 7-2 and suddenly own the NFC’s second-best record, training only the 8-1 Cardinals, their opponent next week in Glendale, Ariz.  

Very stealthily, in that off-the-radar sort of way, these Lions are in the midst of a charmed season in Motown, posting their third consecutive come-from-behind victory in the final two minutes of a game on Sunday, a 20-16 defeat of the previously red-hot Miami Dolphins at Ford Field.  

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Just as they did in an improbable 24-23 win over the visiting Saints in Week 7, and again in a 22-21 nail-biter against Atlanta in London in Week 8, the Lions against Miami proved they can take a punch, then respond in kind. Detroit squandered an early 10-0 lead that should have been bigger, trailed 16-13 late in the fourth quarter, then saved the day when quarterback Matthew Stafford found reserve running back Theo Riddick in the end zone for the pretty go-ahead 11-yard touchdown pass with just 29 seconds left on the clock.   

And just like that, Detroit has started a season 7-2 for the first time since 1993 and the Barry Sanders era, already matched its win total from last year (7-9)  and earned a fourth consecutive victory. That is Detroit's longest winning streak since starting the playoff season of 2011 at 5-0. Caldwell, for his part, is now off to the best start by a first-year Lions head coach since Potsy Clark went 8-1 in 1931. Next week’s Lions at Cardinals game is now assured of being a showdown between two of the NFC’s first-place teams, and I’m not sure too many football pundits would have pegged that one for glamor-game status in the preseason. 

Week 10 Superlatives: Lynch runs all over Giants; Big Ben looks out of sync

Having been doomed by a lack of disciplined play at the end of the team’s Jim Schwartz coaching era (2009-13), the Lions in their latest incarnation seem to stay as steady and focused as Caldwell himself, whose range of emotions during a game swing somewhere between other-worldly calm and practically comatose. Detroit is playing as if it believes the game will always, always, always last long enough for a comeback, and with each of the consecutive wins over the Saints, Falcons and Dolphins, the Lions’ belief has grown.   

When was the last time we’ve seen Detroit playing such a consistent brand of ball? Especially on defense? The top-ranked Lions defense entered Week 10 giving up a league-low 15.8 points per game, and Miami produced just that (16 points), once you do the rounding. The only Dolphins touchdown was set up by a blocked Matt Prater field goal -- oh, those field goals -- that was returned to the Lions’ 3, and the Miami team that dominated San Diego 37-0 last week was nowhere in sight for much of the afternoon.  

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was razor sharp against the Chargers, but the Lions defense hounded him on Sunday, sacking him three times, while hitting or harassing him repeatedly. He threw for just 207 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and Miami’s 228 net yards of offense and puny 4.3 yards per passing play was another feather in the cap for the reinvigorated unit led by first-year Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.    

The Lions offense looked far from crisp at times, going 3-of-12 on third downs, but Stafford and Co. are imperturbable. They don’t fluster and they don’t fade, and they wait for the other team to make the key mistake. In other words, they’re the antithesis of so many self-defeating Detroit Lions teams of the past. These Lions are confident in their ability to win the close ones, with their past three victories coming by a combined six points, and just one win this season by more than two touchdowns (35-14 against the Giants in Week 1).  

Off-field concerns linger, but Dez continues to prove his worth in Dallas

And the best news, the Lions’ most game-changing player -- receiver Calvin Johnson -- returned  to the lineup and to form on Sunday, posting seven catches for 113 yards, including an early 49-yard touchdown reception that signaled his injured ankle won’t prevent him from once again dominating. Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes did yeoman’s work against Megatron, and still he made Miami pay.   

The Lions haven’t played their best ball of the season yet and they’re still 7-2 and at least one game ahead of second-place Green Bay (5-3, but home against Chicago on Sunday night) in the NFC North. But just ahead is the toughest stretch of the season, and Detroit will need everything it has to weather it: at Arizona next week, at surging New England (7-2) in Week 12, then a quick four-day turnaround to face division rival Chicago (3-5) at home in the Lions’ traditional Thanksgiving Day affair. Surviving that gauntlet at even 8-4 should set Detroit up nicely to make a final-month playoff push.   

The road ahead is difficult, but these Lions keep winning games they would have lost last season, and in many seasons before that. A coaching hire that wasn’t all that well-received has helped remake this Detroit team and the proof is in the results and how they keep coming in the most dramatic fashion. These are not the Lions we’ve come to know and frequently deride. Thanks to Caldwell, Motown has a winner on its hands. And Arians has some stern competition for Coach of the Year. 

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• The play of the day on defense in the NFL, and maybe the pick of the year, was that diving one-handed interception Miami’s Grimes made in the end zone, while covering Johnson. Grimes is listed at 5-foot-10, while Johnson goes 6-5, and yet Grimes somehow overcame that ridiculous height disadvantage to keep Miami in the game at the time. Detroit led 10-0 at that point and looked poised to make it 17-0 and a potential blowout.  

Facing Stafford with his back to Johnson, Grimes skyed for all he was worth in the right front corner of the Detroit end zone, then stuck out his right hand and brought the ball in to his chest as he landed. It was highlight reel material and then some, and helped make up for Grimes getting beat by Johnson on a 49-yard touchdown bomb earlier in the first half.

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• If Carson Palmer’s left knee injury is season-ending as multiple reports indicate, it’s difficult to gauge the impact it will have on Arizona’s Super Bowl chances. The blow would be critical, but if there’s a team that has proven the next-man-up mantra isn’t just an NFL cliché this season, it’s the resourceful 8-1 Cardinals.  

Cardinals cruise to 8-1, but can they win without Carson Palmer?

Drew Stanton started in Weeks 2, 3 and 5 this season and Arizona went 2-1 in those games, losing only at Denver. Stanton proved his worth again Sunday in the Cardinals’ 31-17 conquest of visiting St. Louis, entering the game with Arizona trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, and rallying the team to a comeback victory on the strength of a 48-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver John Brown with 7:40 remaining. Stanton was 3 of 5 for 85 yards and that score in his less-than-a-quarter’s worth of work.

What impossibly bad timing for the veteran Palmer, who missed three games with that dead nerve in his throwing shoulder earlier this season, and just last week signed a three-year, $50 million contract extension. While that gives him salary insurance in light of the injury, this is the best team Palmer has ever quarterbacked, and if he’s gone for the season, it’ll be a devastating turns of events for him. 

Whether or not it takes Arizona out of legitimate Super Bowl contention is a question that is more difficult to answer today. The 1990 New York Giants won a Super Bowl ring with Jeff Hostetler subbing for an injured Phil Simms, who went down for the year in December of that season. Hostetler and Stanton are comparable type quarterbacks, and if there’s any team that can keep the train moving this season, no matter what happens or who’s lost, it’s the Cardinals.

• Steelers fans can blame the Curse of Justin Bieber if they want, but I really wouldn’t overreact to Pittsburgh’s stunning 20-13 loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium. This just kind of confirms who we thought the Steelers were: a good but streaky team that can lose to anyone in the league if they’re not on their game. That Pittsburgh had won three games in a row, all at home, made us all forget it started the year by alternating wins and losses for the first seven weeks of the season.   

Steelers fans blame Justin Bieber as reason they lost to Jets

The law of averages said the Steelers couldn’t keep playing as well as they had been, and the Jets weren’t really as bad as their 1-8 record indicated at the start of Week 10. And it didn’t help that Pittsburgh was missing safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Ryan Shazier with injuries.   

New York came in with just three takeaways all season, but recorded four more against the Steelers, on two Ben Roethlisberger interceptions and two Antonio Brown fumbles/muffs. New York’s horrible pass defense had surrendered a league-worst 24 touchdown passes, but Big Ben, he of the 12 scoring passes in the past two games, could muster only one, and that came in the game’s final minutes.   

The reality is this: The Steelers aren’t a juggernaut this season, but no one is in the tightly packed and ridiculously competitive AFC North, the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 at any point in the season since the 1935 NFL Western Division. All four teams seem to switch places in the standings weekly, with the Browns (the Browns!!!) now leading the division at 6-3, followed by Cincinnati at 5-3-1, and then Pittsburgh and Baltimore at 6-4. I don’t see anything fluky about any of that. These are four teams that are separated by little more than a coin flip.

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• I do have some quick thoughts on other Steelers-Jets topics, however. Such as:

-- Wonder if all those Steelers fans who made their way to New Jersey for that dud -- four Pittsburgh turnovers and a missed field goal -- think they spent their travel dollars wisely?

-- The Jets’ Michael Vick is now the first NFL quarterback to rush for 6,000 yards in his career, but I’ll bet he gained at least that many running sideways over the years.  

-- And while we’re at it, how exactly was that not a second-quarter Vick fumble, when he was hit near the sideline and dropped the ball, with it staying in-bounds while he slid out-of-bounds and lost his helmet? I could see calling a penalty on Vick getting hit with an elbow to the head, but no call was made.

Jets' Nick Mangold: Steelers victory formation leap was 'dirty play'

-- So much for the Roethlisberger MVP chatter. He was 30 of 43 for 343 yards, but it really wasn’t that pretty. His two interceptions and one touchdown didn’t seem very MVP-like.