A playoff spot won't become a reality for the Detroit Lions. The way they've played in the last five weeks, however, looks like a building block for next year.
Surging Matthew Stafford and the Lions try for their fifth win in seven games Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers, who have been headed in the other direction all season but have dominated this series.
Stafford turned in one of his best games of the season Monday, going 22 of 25 for 254 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 35-27 victory at New Orleans. Nine players caught passes for the Lions (5-9), who raced to a 28-3 lead before holding off a late surge by the Saints.
Stafford has posted a 116.6 rating over the past four weeks and thrown one INT to 12 TDs in the last five. He has a 105.1 rating in nine games since being benched in the third quarter of a 42-17 loss to Arizona on Oct. 11.
"I think some of the changes we have made have fit his strength," coach Jim Caldwell said. "I have to give him a lot of credit, because what he is doing is not easy. It's a complex system, and that complex system is not necessarily for everybody.
"You see more people fail in it than advance and prosper within it. He doesn't have it all yet, because it hasn't all been installed, but little by little, he has grasped it very quickly."
Detroit's two losses in the previous six games - one of them a 27-23 defeat to Green Bay that came on a final-play Hail Mary - were by a combined 11 points.
"I feel like we are playing good complementary football," Stafford said. "We aren't turning the ball over for the most part ... and we are putting up points.
"But we have to be more consistent just like every other team in the NFL. When you go out and score 35 (points) on the road, you've got to feel good about that."
The Lions are averaging 29.3 points in the last four, pushing their season mark to 21.6.
They've climbed out of last place in the NFL in rushing in the past five weeks, averaging 115.8 yards to jump to 84.4 per game - 0.4 ahead of San Diego. Detroit's five consecutive 100-yard rushing games have been marked by balance, with Ameer Abdullah's 77 yards last week being the highest individual total during that stretch.
The Lions are 4-2 when they rush for more than 100 yards.
Detroit's resurgent ground attack appears to have a good chance to maintain that level of production against the 49ers (4-10), who are giving up 128.6 rushing yards a contest. San Francisco did manage to limit Cincinnati's struggling run game to 68 yards on 36 carries in a 24-14 loss last week, but the 49ers gave up 400 combined in the previous two games.
Half of San Francisco's opponents have rushed for 139 or more yards.
The 49ers were booed off their home field down 21-0 at halftime last week. They committed four turnovers, 11 penalties for 98 yards and went 2 for 14 on third down while also having a field goal blocked.
"I don't blame them," wide receiver Torrey Smith said of the fans' booing. "We're not fun to watch right now. Who wants to sit there and watch that?"
San Francisco has a minus-3 turnover margin and is 30th in the league on third-down conversions at 30.1 percent.
"Penalties, negative plays, that's all a lack of focus," offensive lineman Andrew Tiller said.
"All sides, we can control that. ... Basically just got to put down the pads. We'll do better on third down if we do better on first and second. Trying to convert on third-and-14, third-and-15 is hard."
San Francisco went 2 for 14 on third down against the Bengals and secured last place in the NFC West for the first time since 2005. The 49ers are last in the league with 14.4 points per game and second-to-last in offense at 313.0 yards.
Blaine Gabbert made his sixth straight start last week and went 30 of 50 for 295 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, matching his season total for picks coming in.
San Francisco has won nine in a row over Detroit and 14 of 15. The 49ers won 27-19 in the most recent meeting Sept. 16, 2012, and 25-19 in the last matchup at Ford Field on Oct. 16, 2011.