The Detroit Lions, already with more wins than they had last season, have set themselves up to make a run toward the playoffs after their bye.
"The tale of this season is not going to be written in the first half," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "It is going to be written in the second half, and that is what we have to concentrate on."
Detroit (5-3) has a favorable schedule on its side with just two remaining games — against Chicago next week, and Green Bay on Thanksgiving — against teams that currently have a winning record.
The Lions, though, are not good enough to just show up and win at Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Minnesota, or to beat Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the New York Giants at home.
"We have a lot to play for in the second half," center Dominic Raiola said. "I'm looking forward to that."
Detroit was in a similar position midway through last season, but it turned a .500 record turned into a 4-12 mark with an eight-game losing streak that made the franchise's appearance in the 2011 playoffs look like a fluke.
The Lions desperately want to get back to the postseason, and might have to match their first-half record in the second half of the regular season to secure a spot.
"People know what's at stake and what we have to do to reach our goal," Raiola said.
If the Lions flop in the second half again, even cynical, longtime observers would be surprised. As good as Calvin Johnson is, he can't win games by himself as was proven last season. This year, the superstar receiver has more help.
Johnson had 329 yards receiving — the most in regulation of an NFL game — in a 31-30 comeback win last week against Dallas because of at least a few factors beyond his control.
Matthew Stafford's arm was accurate enough to connect with him 14 times. The maturing quarterback with tons of moxie often had a lot of time to throw behind an improved offensive line. And the presence of Reggie Bush, a key acquisition in free agency, made the Cowboys respect another Detroit player on offense.
The Lions have turned a potential weakness, their offensive line, into a strength with second-year pro Riley Reiff succeeding retired left tackle Jeff Backus; third-round draft pick Larry Warford replacing released right guard Stephen Peterman; and one of three tackles taking the spot vacated when right Gosder Cherilus left in free agency.
"We felt very strong when we left camp, not just our starting players, but also the depth that we had at offensive line, particularly the tackles," Schwartz said.
Detroit's depth at wide receiver has been hurt because Nate Burleson broke his left arm in one-car accident, and Ryan Broyles ruptured an Achilles tendon last Sunday, ending his third straight season with a major surgery.
Burleson, though, is aiming to be back on Nov. 10 for a road game against the Bears after missing five games.
"I'm out of the brace now, so I was able to catch a few balls before the (Cowboys) game, trying to get myself back in a rhythm," he said. "I've got to jump in the water swimming. These guys are playing at a high level. So I don't want there to be any drop-off when I get back on the field."
The Lions can't lean on their defense, but they can count on having a pair of good safeties — unlike last year. Free safety Glover Quin, who signed the same day Bush did in March, has provided a return on the team's investment. Strong safety Louis Delmas has been healthy enough to play as many games as he did last year, helping him match his career high with two interceptions while providing an emotional boost as a charismatic leader.
Linebacker DeAndre Levy, who the team chose to re-sign when it let Justin Durant go in free agency, has four interceptions to double the total from his best year, and a career-high seven passes deflections. Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah has three sacks, perhaps validating Detroit's decision to draft the inexperienced defensive end No. 5 overall. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have had solid seasons so far, even if their impact on games isn't obvious in box scores.
Cornerback Chris Houston bounced back from a benching against Cincinnati with a strong performance against the Cowboys. Dallas appeared to be picking on him by throwing 10 times to Terrance Williams and coming away with just two completions to the rookie receiver.
Houston said the Lions, who rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final three-plus minutes against Dallas, gained confidence from the comeback victory.
"I believe that if this was last year or the year before, we probably would have lost," Houston said. "But we kind of got over that hump."