Beating Chicago a big deal for Detroit

Defenses no longer can concentrate solely on Calvin Johnson as Reggie Bush has emerged. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

DETROIT -- Dominic Raiola stood by his locker late Sunday afternoon, pausing for a second to think about the question.

How big of a win was this for the Detroit Lions, a team that isn’t accustomed to being in first place in its division? Raiola has been around for a while, seen all the losing, answered the same questions about breaking streaks on the road.

About not being the same Lions teams they have been in the past.

Now, slowly, those questions are changing.

On Sunday, after a 40-32 win against Chicago, a win that puts the Lions -- yes, the Detroit Lions -- in first place in the NFC North a month into the season, a win was actually kind of a big deal.

“Let’s make no mistake about it. Division game, they’re undefeated. They are on top of our division feeling pretty good and we had to handle business,” Raiola said. “We’re at home, you’re supposed to win your home games, but this is a big game.

“Not taking anything away from them, they are a great team, but it was a total team effort. Turnovers. And we still didn’t play our best game. But it’s going to be a weekly proving ground for us. You have that one week where you slip up and guys will be like, ‘Oh, here they go.’”

Sure, the "here they go" could happen next week. Detroit goes to Green Bay -- a place where it hasn’t won since 1991 -- to face the usual class of the NFC North.

Even in Detroit’s dominance for three quarters Sunday, there was a glimpse of gloom and doom. The Lions watched a 24-point lead with 8:57 left in the game turn into an eight-point win. In years past, this would be cause for much nervousness in Detroit, that a lead might slip away again, that the Lions would find another almost inexplicable way to lose.

Except there is something undeniably different about this Lions team. Detroit intercepted Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler three times Sunday. In all prior games against Cutler, the Lions picked him off once. There were big-play sacks and pressures, making Cutler appear uncomfortable and always on the move. Then there is the offense, which no longer has just Calvin Johnson as the first, second and third options to make massive plays.

There are other options now. The offense now has two big threats -- Johnson and running back Reggie Bush, who took a hole and turned it into a 37-yard touchdown run to give the Lions a 30-10 lead in the first half.

Keep in mind, the Lions scored 40 points -- the first time they’ve done that since Week 3 of last season -- with Johnson catching only four passes for 44 yards. In many prior seasons, Johnson's numbers would have guaranteed a loss.

This season, it doesn't matter. Detroit won anyway.

“We have [No.] 21 over there,” Johnson said, referring to Bush. “That dude does special things out there every week. As long we can give him good support in the blocking game and we do our thing on the outside, we’re going to be all right.”

It would also matter little if not for Detroit’s defense. While much of the attention will be paid to Johnson and Bush, the Lions’ defensive line explains why they have been able to be dominant at points this season.

Detroit can use its front four, led by mammoth defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, to pressure quarterbacks and place offensive lines completely off-kilter without having to send linebackers to blitz.

It was those two tackles who combined for a defensive touchdown Sunday. Suh forced a fumble by Cutler and Fairley returned it 4 yards for the score.

“As a defense, getting at a quarterback, any quarterback, you hit them enough times I’m sure they’ll get rattled,” Fairley said. “I think we hit him enough times to rattle him but he didn’t show it.

“As long as, as a defense and defensive line, we keep bringing pressure to the quarterback, then we’ll do a good job.”

There is a belief permeating this organization, not just among the offense or defense. There is a belief inside Ford Field and the team’s headquarters in Allen Park, Mich. There’s a feeling unlike other seasons. In those years, all Detroit wanted to do was win -- do anything the Lions could to win.

Now, it’s a feeling that they know they can win.

“I think we always believed,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “We always have. But we’re just playing good football right now and we continue to do it. We understand what has gotten us here is a lot of hard work and guys being dedicated to trying to do stuff the right way.

“And we’re going to continue to do that.”

Where this could take Detroit is the question. Thus far, it has brought the Lions an early divisional lead. To a team that looks, for now, like it could be in the race the rest of the season.

So Sunday? For the Lions? Yeah, Sunday meant something.

“Yeah, yeah, a lot,” said rookie cornerback Darius Slay, who has been around for none of the losing seasons Detroit has endured. “We’re No. 1 in the division now, right now. Anybody can say what they want to say.

“We 3-1 and we are up in the division. So, I mean, that’s all you can say.”