A Lions playoff run? Not if they can't shake lethargy

CHICAGO -- The Detroit Lions talked a good game after playing a fairly bad one Sunday afternoon.

They said all the right things about knowing they need to improve, despite winning another game on the road, and being in the playoffs for the first time since 2011. But there’s a difference between saying it and believing it and actually doing it.

Right now, the Lions need to start doing what they’ve been saying for weeks -- namely, improving on slow starts and overall on offense after another somewhat sluggish 20-14 win over Chicago on Sunday.

The Lions keep winning these close, somewhat ugly games. These are games the Lions often lost in past years, and there is some value in how Detroit has pulled off these wins, even when the offense and special teams were not playing well.

But the Lions have beat up a lot of sub-par teams this season. Detroit has beaten only two teams with winning records through 16 weeks -- Miami and Green Bay -- and both those wins were at Ford Field. Barring an unexpected trip to the NFC South winner in the playoffs, the Lions are going to face teams with high levels of talent and winning records the rest of the way.

Simply put, the Lions need to be better than they were Sunday against Chicago if they want to win the NFC North or make any sort of extended run in the playoffs.

“That’s clear to see that we’ve got to play better,” wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. “We can’t turn the ball over three times. You can’t win against a good team while turning the ball over three times. Not saying Chicago wasn’t a good team, but we just grinded it out today.”

The Lions didn’t play particularly well in any facet Sunday. They were hampered by too many mistakes on offense, including Matthew Stafford's throwing two red zone interceptions -- the same number of red zone interceptions he had thrown over his prior 32 games combined.

Special-teams play was atrocious and led to both Chicago scores. Lions returner Jeremy Ross muffed catching a punt and allowed Chicago to recover and score a touchdown. A roughing-the-punter penalty extended another Bears drive that led to a touchdown.

On defense, the Lions allowed journeyman quarterback Jimmy Clausen, in his first start since the 2010 season, to have his first career multi-touchdown day.

“We’ve got a ways to go, as you can see,” defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. “Today wasn’t the prettiest of games. We’ve got a lot of things to correct. Just to get better, still a lot of things to work at.”

A lot of that begins with the first halves of games, in which the Lions have outscored their opponents 150-143. In the second halves of games, the Lions have played much better and outscored their opponents 151-109.

Detroit has trailed at halftime in six of its games and was tied with the Bears on Sunday. The Lions also have scored fewer than 10 points in the first half of six games this year.

The Lions also committed all three of their turnovers in the first half and once again spotted a team a lead. Often this season, Detroit has been able to overcome that. It’s why the Lions are a playoff team instead of one already knowing they’d be watching at home this season.

“We can start faster. A faster start in the playoffs because all teams are good,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said. “They got there for a reason, so you don’t want to be lagging behind. You don’t want to be behind the eight ball, especially when it’s self-inflicted.”

The “self-inflicted” issues were everywhere in Detroit’s first half Sunday, and it is something the team has to fix as soon as it can, if it wants to avoid a premature end to the season.