EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jeremy Shockey is a believer.
"They're a good team," the New York Giants tight end said after his club's 28-13 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Giants Stadium. "They're not the same Detroit team you've seen in the past."
Indeed, they aren't. The Lions are 4-2, that from a team that went 10-38 over the previous three seasons. These Lions are 3-0 on the road after entering the season with an NFL-record 24 consecutive road defeats. Even Coach Steve Mariucci can't explain the turnaround.
"No, I can't. I swear I can't," Mariucci said Sunday. "We are just playing real solid football. We are not turning the ball over on the road, and that certainly helps. The weather doesn't bother us. We haven't had bad weather or anything. The crowd doesn't seem to bother us. The stress and the pressure and the situation don't seem to bother us. It's a complete turnaround. Now when you lose three years in a row on the road, that's hard. It's hard to deal with that. We are just not making any big mistakes, and that is the key. . . . We have just been playing smart football."
The Lions didn't commit a turnover Sunday and forced two by the Giants, recovering one of quarterback Kurt Warner's three fumbles and intercepting a pass in the end zone in the final minute of the first half to swing the game's momentum. That improved the Lions' turnover margin for the season to plus-10, the best in the league (the Giants dipped to plus-nine after being an NFL-best plus-11 entering the game).
Detroit was less than overwhelming on offense, scoring half its points in the final three minutes -- including a garbage-time touchdown after the Giants failed on a last-gasp, fourth-and-four attempt from their 22-yard line.
But the Lions' three young building blocks on offense made enough significant plays to win. Quarterback Joey Harrington completed 18 of 22 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns -- one to rookie wide receiver Roy Williams. Rookie tailback Kevin Jones ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Williams and Jones, the Lions' two first-round draft picks this year, had been plagued by ankle sprains in recent weeks.
"Guys were playing hurt, coming in and out of the game, sucking it up and going back in," Mariucci said. "Kevin Jones and Roy certainly contributed. We missed them when they weren't in there, and they were big. They are pretty sore. We have got to freshen them up."
On defense, the Lions limited Giants tailback Tiki Barber to 70 rushing yards on 22 carries. They sacked Warner six times despite rarely blitzing. They dropped into deep zone coverages on pass defense and made the Giants try to beat them with short throws by Warner. The Giants got a 62-yard touchdown on a first-quarter screen pass -- thanks to some nifty running by Barber and a crunching block by rookie wide receiver Jamaar Taylor -- but had to settle for two short field goals by kicker Steve Christie and got no points on a superb drive late in the second quarter because Warner's pass for wideout Amani Toomer in the back of the end zone was intercepted by cornerback Chris Cash. Warner was scrambling and tried to lob the ball to an open Toomer, but Cash rushed in front of the receiver to make a dazzling, diving grab.
"I didn't see the guy coming," Toomer said. "It was like a flash."
The Lions are ranked last in the league in total offense and 29th in total defense They have been beaten badly twice at home this season, by 17 points by the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 and by 28 points by the Green Bay Packers eight days ago. But suddenly they are all about bottom-line results and finding ways to win, and they are a resilient bunch. Maybe they don't have enough experience to know when they should begin to fold.
"That football team, the Detroit Lions, has come off two losses, big losses, and played well the following week," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said. "It was well-documented. The information was there. We just didn't heed the information."
Said Lions defensive end James Hall: "It was an embarrassing game for us last week and we had something to come out and prove."
Matt Millen, the Lions' president and general manager, waited at the end of the tunnel leading from the field to the locker room to offer congratulatory hugs and handshakes to his players and coaches after the game Sunday. Millen was genuinely excited, and he's getting results after saying as the season began that he didn't know quite what to expect from his talented but inexperienced team.
It has been a bumpy ride for Millen and the Lions since he left behind his successful broadcasting career to take over the club's front office in January 2001. Millen took a team that had gone 9-7 in the 2000 season and promptly turned it into a club that went 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002 and 5-11 last year. Millen got into trouble for controversial remarks he made on the radio and on the field after a game, and was fined $200,000 by the league for failing to comply with the NFL rule requiring him to interview a minority head-coaching candidate before he hired Mariucci last year. Many observers wondered how Millen managed to keep his job.
But the Ford family that owns the Lions stuck by him, and Millen perhaps has constructed a built-to-last contender. He has gotten Harrington, wide receiver Charles Rogers, Williams and Jones with first-round draft choices the past three years.
Harrington totaled 38 interceptions and only 29 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons but is playing winning football now as a third-year pro, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. He is the first Lions quarterback to throw at least one touchdown pass in each of the first six games of a season since Scott Mitchell in 1995. Harrington is the third-rated passer in the NFC, behind only Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb.
Rogers is on the injured reserve list after breaking his collarbone for a second season in a row, but Williams is the early favorite for rookie-of-the-year honors and has established himself as one the league's best receivers. Jones has had a slow, injury-filled beginning to his NFL career but demonstrated his big-play capabilities Sunday with runs of 22 and 20 yards on the third-quarter drive that culminated with his first pro touchdown.
"I am really proud of these guys," Mariucci said. "We seemed to hit rock bottom last week in the second half against our archrival, Green Bay, and we seemed to hit a high-water mark for this football team [Sunday]. . . . I thought our defense was solid. We took the ball away from a team that is pretty good at taking care of it. We converted third downs, for a change. We ran for over 100 yards, for a change. We threw the ball very efficiently. . . . It was complete team effort.
"We need to be a little bit more level-headed, steady as she goes, not so high, not so low. And we need to be more like this, where we can play more consistently on a week-in and week-out basis. But that is going to happen as our youngsters get some experience and some playing time and some practice time and some maturing. It doesn't happen overnight. Rome was not built in a day, so we just keep on working.''. . . .
Linebacker Barrett Green was one of three Giants players who had grievances filed on their behalf by the NFL Players Association after they were fined by Coughlin for showing up early to a team meeting, but not early enough to suit Coughlin.
Green was back at odds with Coughlin on Sunday, playing only on special teams after reportedly being at least an hour and a half late to work one day during the Giants' bye week. Green was benched in favor of Nick Greisen.
"I thought we put it behind us, but obviously it continues to linger on," Green said. "I was under the impression I would get into the game, yeah. It's a disappointing feeling."
Green played for the Lions the previous four seasons and greeted Harrington warmly in the tunnel after the game. He said repeatedly that it was not his place to offer an opinion on Coughlin's decision but called it "probably one of the most frustrating experiences of my life." Said Green: "I didn't understand it, but it's not my job or my prerogative to."
Coughlin declined to answer questions on the subject, saying: "That's between Barrett Green and I." Pressed on the issue, Coughlin said he would have played Green on defense "if it was necessary, but I thought Nick Greisen played well. Just let me have some time, okay? We just finished a game that was very disappointing. I'll answer all those personnel questions next week."
Coughlin did not answer a question about whether Green's punishment would last beyond the Lions game. . . . Coughlin gave his team its first postgame verbal kick in the pants. He'd been encouraging publicly after a season-opening loss at Philadelphia, but said Sunday that his players had "started to feel a little full of ourselves" after the four-game winning streak that followed the defeat to the Eagles and "didn't prepare properly."
Coughlin said he could sense that such a dud of a performance might be forthcoming from the way his team practiced leading up to the game. He mildly praised the performance of his kick-coverage units Sunday, then added: "Beyond that, I don't know what we did that was worth discussing. It's my responsibility to have them ready to play, and they were not ready to play."
His players politely differed with the assessment.
"I prepared the way I always prepare," Warner said. "I was ready to play. We had opportunities to win this football game. We just didn't do it. . . . I didn't feel that, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there or didn't happen. . . . I hate losing. Any loss, to me, is a big setback. This is a game we should have won. We very easily could have won this football game. It's definitely a setback. At the same time, we have a lot of football ahead of us."
Said defensive end Michael Strahan: "Nobody was up over our record. We realized what it took to get where we were. . . . Some days are your day. Some days aren't. This wasn't our day. . . . We really have to increase our sense of urgency, plain and simple. I didn't do it. Other guys didn't do it. Even without it, we should have won this game.''. . . . Warner's interception was only his second of the season. "I didn't see the guy coming across," he said. "I just wish I had put more on the throw."
Said Coughlin: "I know the ball wasn't thrown high enough. If it was up high, I think we would have scored. It was a huge play in the game, but I didn't feel that was something that was a total letdown at the half.'' . . . Coughlin began the season receptive toward giving a new chance to tailback Ron Dayne, who'd fallen deep into former Giants coach Jim Fassel's doghouse. But the former Heisman Trophy winner isn't producing for the new regime, either. Barber has re-established himself as a full-time, productive back, and Dayne is failing as a short-yardage runner. Coughlin settled for a 19-yard field goal in the second quarter Sunday after Dayne was stuffed on third and goal from the 1-yard line. Earlier in the drive, Dayne did manage to get a first down when Coughlin left his offense on the field on fourth and inches, but the day ended with Coughlin saying he would re-evaluate all roles on his short-yardage offense.
Warner said: "We've just got to figure out how to get it done. We've got to figure out how to score down there. We haven't done well enough down there in any game this season."
Bears Pass on Couch
Bears officials decided not to sign quarterback Tim Couch, the top overall selection in the 1999 draft by Cleveland who worked out for Chicago on Friday and Saturday and underwent a physical. Bears officials had been uncertain whether Couch, who was released by the Packers before the season after being plagued by a sore arm in training camp and the preseason, was healthy. He had filed a grievance against Green Bay alleging that he was cut improperly while he was injured.
"We wanted to look at Tim after he was well, after his elbow and shoulder had healed. We got a chance to do that this past week," coach Lovie Smith said. "Right now we think we're going in a different direction. The three guys we have on our roster right now is what we're going with."
Smith benched Jonathan Quinn, who has struggled mightily since taking over for the injured Rex Grossman as Chicago's starting quarterback, during Sunday's 19-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which dropped the Bears to 1-5. Quinn and rookie Craig Krenzel totaled only 116 passing yards Sunday, and the Bears had only 167 yards total offense. Krenzel, a fifth-round draft pick from Ohio State, split the practice work with Quinn last week and could take over as the starter this week, even though he threw a costly interception Sunday. Recently-signed quarterback Chad Hutchinson is still learning the offense.
Since going 13-3 in 2001 and opening the 2002 season with two victories, the Bears are 10-26.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea
When the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos tonight, it will be their first appearance on "Monday Night Football" since Oct. 19, 1992. It will be their first Monday night game at home since Sept. 25, 1989.
It seemed reasonable in the spring when the NFL's schedule-makers put Cincinnati on the Monday night slate. The Bengals were coming off an 8-8 season under Marvin Lewis in his first year a head coach, and they appeared to be a team on the rise.
But, alas, they are still the Bengals, the downtrodden franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 1990. They'll take a 1-4 record into a matchup with the 5-1 Broncos that doesn't look so enticing any more. Carson Palmer has thrown twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) after Lewis took the starting-quarterback job from Jon Kitna in the offseason and handed it to the top overall choice in the 2003 draft. The Cincinnati defense ranks 30th in the NFL overall and last -- by a wide margin -- against the run, and now it faces the league's No. 2 rushing offense. Denver's new starter at tailback, Reuben Droughns, has rushed for 369 yards in the Broncos' last two games.
The Bengals have an all-time record of 7-16 in Monday night games, the league's second-worst to Atlanta's 6-18 (discounting the Houston Texans, who never have appeared in a Monday night game). The Arizona Cardinals now inherit the league's longest active stretch of not appearing in a Monday night game. They last played a Monday night game Sept. 27, 1999.
Spurrier Interested in Return to Florida?
Several of Steve Spurrier's associates said today they believe that he would seriously consider a return to the University of Florida, where he spent 12 seasons and amassed 122 victories before his failed two-year stint with the Washington Redskins. The school fired Spurrier's successor, Ron Zook, today, effective at the end of the season.
"There's no question they'll pay whatever it takes to get him back,'' one Spurrier associate said. "And there's no question his family will want him to go back.''
Spurrier was not immediately available to comment. He is taking this season off after going 12-20 with the Redskins. Most of the people who know him well expect him to return to college coaching next season, and North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas have been mentioned as top possibilities. It's possible that he also could have at least one NFL suitor, the Miami Dolphins.
The problem with a return to Florida, Spurrier's associates say, is that he would have a difficult time living up to the expectations of Gators followers. Spurrier left the school in part because he was frustrated with the criticism that came with every season in which he did not win a Southeastern Conference title or contend seriously for a national championship.
Alstott Out Four Weeks
Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott will be sidelined for about four weeks because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said at his news conference today. . . .
Carolina tailback DeShaun Foster will miss the remainder of the season because of his broken collarbone, Panthers Coach John Fox said. Foster, who suffered the injury 15 days ago, will need to undergo surgery and will be placed on the injured reserve list, according to Fox. The club's starting tailback, Stephen Davis, continues to be plagued by a knee injury. . . .
Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook is undergoing tests today for a bruised sternum. Westbrook is one of Philadelphia's most indispensable players. The Eagles were left without a reliable backup when they lost Correll Buckhalter to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.