ZEROS TO HEROES

Winless in 2008, the Lions have used a potent aerial attack to soar to a 3--0 start
October 02, 2011

Inside the Metrodome's cramped visitor's locker room, there were all the signs of a franchise reborn. Wide receiver Nate Burleson provided the sound track, hovering over a thumping stereo system, his fingers gliding across an iPad. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch stood across the way, a vision of whimsy in Superman boxers. And Matthew Stafford, a baseball cap worn backwards, stood before a podium and tried to come up with the perfect description for a superstar teammate, game-breaking receiver Calvin Johnson.

"Calvin," Stafford said finally, "just does those things."

On Sunday "those things" included a 40-yard over-the-shoulder catch in overtime that had observers talking long after the Lions defeated the Vikings 26--23 for their first 3--0 start since 1980. After snaring two second-half touchdown passes to help erase a 20--0 deficit, Johnson was split left on the Lions' 46-yard line on the first possession of overtime, one-on-one against cornerback Cedric Griffin. The 6'5" Johnson ran a go route, looked for the ball over his right shoulder and corralled it with his fingertips while falling to the ground. On the next play Jason Hanson booted a 32-yard field goal for the win, Detroit's first in Minneapolis since 1997.

"I saw that it was Cover 3, where they single up on the outside," Johnson said of the coverage. "I just went up and got it."

Johnson makes it sound simple—and he makes it look that way too. On the Lions' first score Stafford lofted a rainbow toward the goal line, where Johnson spun, leaped and came down with the ball over cornerback Chris Cook. "There are times in games when I have to remind myself that I'm not a fan," Burleson says. "The only other player I've ever had to do that with is Randy Moss."

Johnson, 26, has been a dangerous weapon since he came to the Lions as the second pick out of Georgia Tech in 2007, but never has he been part of such a well-balanced air attack. His 16 receptions are tied for the team lead with tight end Brandon Pettigrew's, and running back Jahvid Best has 15. Throw in Burleson, and the Lions are the only team besides the Patriots with four receivers who have as many as 14 catches. "This organization has done a great job putting together this puzzle," says Burleson, who signed as a free agent from Seattle before last season. "When [opposing coaches go] to the sideline and look at their printouts, who do they look at as the point of emphasis to stop? It's tough."

The 3--0 start has Detroit fans—who three years ago watched as their team became the first in NFL history to go 0--16—thinking of the postseason, but there is some cause for concern: The Lions have struggled to run the ball (20 yards on 19 carries against Minnesota), and they still have four games against division bullies Green Bay and Chicago. Still, they are talented, young and unafraid. Says center Dominic Raiola, "There is nothing that can happen on the field that this offense, defense and special teams can't overcome."

After three impressive wins, few would argue.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

WHO HAS THE D TO STOP OU?

NASCAR

TEMPESTUOUS TONY CHARGES ON

FANTASY

ALL RISE

Three weeks in, it's time for a trade, an upgrade or two and a bye-week sleeper

CHRIS JOHNSON

RB,Titans

Johnson (below) has gained 98 yards with no TDs through three games. Fantasy owners are panicking, but he simply needs to knock off the rust and regain his timing. Trade for him while his value is low.

VICTOR CRUZ

WR,Giants

Cruz lit up the Eagles for two touchdowns and 110 yards on three catches. With Domenik Hixon out and Mario Manningham a question mark, expect more from Cruz as the season goes on.

JAMES CASEY

FB-TE,Texans

As a tight end Casey sat, but as a fullback he's opening holes and last week caught five passes for 126 yards. He's a good pickup provided your league counts him as a runner.

DANE SANZENBACHER

WR,Bears

Chicago's offense has scored five touchdowns in three games, and two of those have come from Sanzenbacher. He's gone from seeing one pass in the first week to seven in each of the last two.

TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIER (JOHNSON AND STAFFORD)ROCKETTE MEN Johnson got his kicks against the Vikings, catching two TD passes from Stafford (inset), including an acrobatic snag over Cook.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)