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Now in a two-game slump, time for Lions to prove mettle

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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The Lions must find a way to keep Matthew Stafford upright if they want to keep winning. (AP)  
The Lions must find a way to keep Matthew Stafford upright if they want to keep winning. (AP)  

DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford was in a familiar position: outstretched, doctors and trainers peering and poking, people watching while holding their breath.

"A guy just fell on me awkward," Stafford said. "I'm moving around on it OK right now. We'll see."

It wasn't "awkward." Stafford actually had his leg slightly crushed after it was rolled on in the fourth quarter. Stafford wobbled to the sideline where trainers took a look and eventually moved him to a lengthy table where his right foot was re-taped. But by the time team trainers were done with their examination, the Atlanta Falcons had earned a crucial and gutsy 23-16 win.

This was a brutal, wonderful, frustrating and emotional game that also saw Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan temporarily depart with what the team described as a knee injury. It looked gruesome at first but he returned in what was one of the season's more gritty performances.

"It looked worse than it actually was," said Ryan, bravado talking. It looked bad because it was bad.

Thus in one game you saw two of the league's premier young throwing stars limp off the field and cause panic from the Midwest to the South.

But the Falcons deserve a great deal of credit for winning in this noisy environment and Ryan deserves credit for playing through a painful injury. There also was the fact that tight end Tony Gonzalez moved into second place on the all-time receptions list, a remarkable achievement. And at the beginning of the game, officials had to break up a near scrum between several dozen Lions and Falcons players.

Had the Falcons lost you'd have to seriously question their playoff chances. It can't be understated how important this game was for them.

The Lions are at the other end of the spectrum. One of the best stories in football earlier -- with all due respect to Tim Tebow -- the Lions began 5-0. They've now lost two straight and while two losses doesn't mean panic time the Lions are doing the opposite of what made them win. Detroit is turning the ball over, the passing game is slowing and while Ndamukong Suh hasn't gone totally Invisible Man it appears teams are learning how to lessen his normally monstrous impact.

In fact, several Falcons players said privately afterwards that while Suh is still formidable and great, they feel the wear and tear of constant double teams is beginning to slightly slow him down. Those are big words but they may be accurate. In watching Suh it's clear his aggressiveness isn't the same as it was earlier this season.

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Of course, if I'm not mistaken, I saw the Falcons triple-team Suh on more than one occasion. Hell, yes, that will slow someone down and lessen aggression. Suh finished with five total tackles and a sack.

However, Detroit's biggest problem is the sudden containment of its offense. The team has become alarmingly one-dimensional, partly because of injuries at running back and partly because it seems the coaching staff has relied too heavily on the Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson bomb. It worked again Sunday as Johnson scored from 57 yards out.

Too many times against Atlanta the Lions found themselves in third and long, relying on Stafford to get them out of trouble. He's good enough to do that some of the time but few quarterbacks that aren't named Aaron Rodgers do that all the time.

It was weird at times watching the Lions' offensive philosophy against Atlanta. It was mostly obvious run play on first down, obvious run play on second and then throw deep. At several points many of the 63,000 Lions fans, obviously spoiled by decades of splendid success and Super Bowl wins, began booing the play-calling. It was obnoxious, yes, but some of the calls were indeed mysterious. "Started off 5-0 with a good start and we've had a rough spot here," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "Two games that, you know, we haven't been us. We haven't been our personality which is scoring and getting stops and playing good special teams. We gotta get back to that."

This is where Schwartz will earn his pay. He's a bright and talented coach but to this point much of his skill has been using sheer will and emotion to propel the Lions. Now, Schwartz and his staff must get more tactical. Solutions to the Lions' problems now aren't in the mind but in the Xs and Os.

Some of the mantra emerging from the Lions' locker room was that it was Detroit that lost the game, not Atlanta winning it. "Honestly, I think it's just a lot of mistakes that we made on the defensive side of the ball [that] allowed them to move the ball," Suh said. "They didn't do anything too special."

The Falcons did plenty. They won.

Now it's time to see what the Lions can do once hard times hit.

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