Can't fault Lions' swagger

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Just for fun this week, the Detroit Zoo made a pinata that was supposed to look like a Bears football player, stuffed it with meat and threw it into the lions' den.

Occupied with their flat-screen TV and the Major League Baseball playoffs, the lions were mostly disinterested.


Not the part about the lions being disinterested, though. Reportedly, they mostly yawned and scratched themselves, pawing at the cardboard Bear until its head toppled off.

The real Detroit Lions, meanwhile, in looking forward to Monday night's game with the real Chicago Bears -- which obviously inspired the zoo stunt -- predicted crunching hits, trash-talking and a playoff atmosphere at Ford Field.

"It's going to be like an NFC Championship Game," Detroit receiver Nate Burleson said.

You can hardly blame the 4-0 Lions, who, even more than the Detroit Tigers, have been linked to the city's civic and sports renaissance. Winners of eight straight games going back to the end of the 2010 season, the Lions are heady with success while at the same time cognizant of the slow building process that has taken place since the ouster of former general manager Matt Millen three years ago and the promotion of Martin Mayhew in December 2008.

Winless under now-Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli that '08 season, the Lions then drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford in '09, hired Jim Schwartz as their new head coach and even tweaked their Lions logo to make it look more ferocious.

Still, the team was cold-cocked by the Bears 48-24 at Soldier Field in Week 4 of the '09 season en route to a 2-14 record, and the Lions began last season 2-10 before winning their last four games.

Bears receiver Roy Williams -- drafted in the first round by the Lions in '04 and dealt to the Cowboys in '08 as the Lions, then the laughingstock of the league, began their gradual resurgence -- said he was happy for the Detroit faithful.

"The fans are excited [and] they truly deserve it," he said. "No offense to the Bears' fans or Cowboys' fans, but they are the most loyal fans I've seen going through everything they went through but still showing up at the games and still cheering for their football team."

Long snapper Patrick Mannelly, the longest-tenured player on the Bears in his 14th season, can still remember the feeling when the team went from a record of 5-11 in 2000 to 13-3 in '01, both under Dick Jauron.

"You almost build your own confidence and you feel like you can't be beat," Mannelly said. "Not only do you get more confident in yourself, you become more confident in your teammates, and it's like it builds and builds and builds ...

"The other thing in '01 was that we had a lot of talent in the locker room that year, and I don't think we were as talented of a team before that. And as we started to play and win, we were like, 'Wait a minute, these guys are really good.'"

With Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson -- a Millen draft choice -- and the indomitable defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick last season, the Lions can look around now and see the same thing.

"Once that light switch finally goes on, they tend to stay there for a while," Williams said, who sounded as if he even credited the Lions for getting rid of him.

"I think management in Detroit has done a great job of getting players in and out and fitting their scheme. ... And they're getting used to winning. It used to be they couldn't win on the road, and then in their first [four games], they win three games on the road. When a football team can win on the road [at Tampa, Minnesota and Dallas] that consistently, they're a good football team."

Although this is the first Lions team to begin a season 4-0 since 1980, Schwartz insisted his team is not getting ahead of itself, even with Burleson's playoff hype for the 2-2 Bears.

"It really doesn't affect us a whole lot, to tell you the truth," he said of being one of just two undefeated teams along with Green Bay. "This is a hard-working team [but] we work about the same as we did last year when we were 2-10. That sort of got us through [the] last four and is getting us through this year, even though we haven't played our best football.

"I think our players have a lot of confidence and don't need fans or media to validate that. They all have a good attitude not just [about] winning the first four games, but they understand there's a lot of room for improvement."

It's hard not to root for a team that has experienced what the Lions have -- an average of four wins in the past 10 seasons -- even as the Bears hope to at least temporarily burst the bubble.

"Any time you can put a streak together, it's a great feeling," Bears center Roberto Garza said. "Winning one game in the NFL is tough enough and winning a couple in a row is a great accomplishment. But you have to win week after week. It's four [wins, but] just like us, what we did last week is great, but if you don't go out and put together another game like that, it doesn't mean anything."

Somehow it seems to mean a little more than that.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.