PONTIAC, MICH., NOV. 3 -- When a franchise has had six straight losing seasons and is approaching the 30th anniversary of its last postseason victory, it takes Super Bowls when it can get them.
For the Detroit Lions, this is one, at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Washington Redskins (4-3), and all it means is a chance for the Lions (3-4) to reach .500, take a giant step toward the playoffs and defeat the Redskins for the first time in 25 years. Joe Don Looney scored the winning touchdown in that last victory.
The Lions have played it for all it's worth. They're expecting their biggest home crowd in four years (around 80,000 in the Silverdome), and on the heels of their rousing victory in New Orleans last weekend, they're catching the Redskins coming off another draining loss to the New York Giants.
"This game scares me to death," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "They're going to be excited and this is the first time in a while they've felt they had a chance to do something."
Gibbs has said as much to his players and told them to prepare for an emotional opponent and a roaring stadium. What the Redskins know is that it's the circumstances, not so much the opponent, that should make them nervous this week.
After three weeks of slugging it out with the Giants and Eagles, they get an opponent they should whip at the line of scrimmage, and the Redskins hope that means a big day for an offense that has averaged only 14 points the last three games.
Gibbs was less than pleased with a unit that rushed for 64 yards against the Giants in the Meadowlands and let his players know it during a midweek meeting. It wasn't much of a day for the Posse, either, as Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders caught only four passes -- their lowest regular season production ever.
That offense could be even more important since this will be the Redskins defense's first look at the run-and-shoot offense that uses four wide receivers and an assortment of rollouts, draws, screens and traps.
The Redskins seemingly don't know what to make of the Silver Stretch offense. They say it's either the offense of the '90s or a passing fad that'll nevertheless give coaches something else to worry about. At the very least, the Redskins will be tested.
"It changes a lot of things and they can do so much from it," linebacker Wilber Marshall said. "They keep people honest, and it's up to our offense to stay on the field and keep the Lions on the bench."
It does offer defenses some advantages. Since it emphasizes the pass, the running game is sometimes only a footnote, and that's good news for teams gearing up to stop second-year man Barry Sanders.
He's 5 feet 8, 203 pounds and the Redskins say he may be the best running back they've ever seen. He may also be one of the least used for one so talented. He's third in the NFC in rushing with 462 yards but has 19 fewer carries than leader Johnny Johnson of Phoenix. He went 25 minutes without touching the ball in the season opener and last week carried the ball 12 times for 10 yards. He did gain 72 yards on five pass receptions, though.
"It's not so much what I like as it is what's best for the team," Sanders said. "It's easy to forget it's a team sport. I guess this is best for the team. We're in a better position than we were last year. I'm not going to look more at individual statistics than what the team as a whole is doing. We're doing pretty well right now. If we could get to .500, it'd be something the Lions haven't done in a long time. That's what's important right now. Everything else has to take a back seat."
The run-and-shoot puts everyone in a back seat to the quarterback, whose rollout decisions set up almost everything else. Rodney Peete is averaging 9.1 yards per run and 7.0 yards per pass completion. However, when Peete plays, it seems that Sanders does not. He has averaged 87 total yards when Peete is the Lions quarterback and 148 when it is Bob Gagliano.
The Lions say one of the advantages is that since receivers are spread along the field, they don't need to be superstars, only guys able to run good routes and hold on to passes. Robert Clark, a Plan B signee two years ago, had 63 catches for 1,031 yards last season and has 28 catches for 470 yards this season.
Gambling has its cost. Last week against New Orleans, the Lions had 10 third-down plays and needed more than 10 yards eight times. They converted once. They did defeat the Saints, 27-10, but could thank eight New Orleans turnovers. The Detroit offense had 12 first downs and 262 total yards.
That philosophy of using receivers more than Sanders is a sensitive subject, especially since almost any other NFL coach would put him in an I-formation and run him 35 times a game. Sanders is diplomatic about such things, pointing out that he's not unhappy but that he did win a Heisman Trophy running from the I at Oklahoma State.
"All you can do is look at history and I've run well from the I in the past," he said. "I don't think there's any reason to believe I wouldn't have success on this level. The thing is, I haven't done it."
Lions Coach Wayne Fontes said it is largely a matter of not having enough good linemen to shove defensive beef around. He said that, someday, after a couple more drafts, he may go to a more traditional offense. But not now. He also points out the Lions ended last season with five straight victories and thus have won eight of their last 12.
"We don't have the caliber of skilled athletes that the Redskins, 49ers or Giants do," Fontes said. "We've played pretty decently at times and we've played very, very poorly at times. The Detroit Lions have been in existence many years and we've scored more points at this point this season than any time the last 10 years. The thing people are doing is saying, 'Let's stop Barry Sanders,' so they force us to pass.
"I've been a defensive coach my entire career, and I think when you go with four wide receivers it opens the game up. With our personnel, it's perfect."
Redskins Notes: Defensive lineman Jumpy Geathers, as expected, was added to the 47-man roster, and Tracy Rocker (knee) was placed on injured reserve. . . . Cornerback Darrell Green missed today's practice to make an emergency trip to the dentist. He's expected to play.