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How the Lions and Bills are proving pundits wrong

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek (R) sacks Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Preseason predictions in any sport mean absolutely nothing. It’s a fun way for the media and fans to get hyped for the regular season but it’s not like players and coaches are concerned about who prognosticators predict to win the Super Bowl.

That said, it is interesting to look back at how the “experts” whiffed when it came to predicting the success of the Lions and Bills. Granted, there’s still plenty of time for both teams to fall flat on their faces (after all, the Lions were 6-2 in 2007 before losing seven of their last eight to finish 8-8) and to be fair, there were several pundits who believed Detroit would make the playoffs as a Wild Card. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would have laid money on Detroit and Buffalo being a combined 9-1 at this point in the season.

Thus, what did pundits miss that prevented them from believing the Lions and Bills would be this good (at least record wise)? Below are a couple of thoughts.

THE PASS PROTECTION
Both teams were expected to be hampered by their offensive lines and yet outside of the Titans, no team has been better in pass protection than Buffalo. Third-year players Andy Levitre and Eric Wood have really come into their own while Fred Jackson has stepped up his efforts in pass protection as well. The Bills blew it in 2009 with the selection of mega-bust Aaron Maybin, but give Buffalo credit for also pulling the trigger on Wood and Levitre in that same draft. They were dedicated to rebuilding their O-line and now they’re starting to reap the rewards. As for the Lions, their pass protection hasn’t been great but it’s certainly been much better than people expected coming into the season. While Jeff Backus continues to be exploited at tackle, veteran Dominic Raiola has made up for his poor run blocking with solid pass protection and the same can be said for Stephen Peterman. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew has also come a long way as a pass blocker since his rookie year in ’09.

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The five biggest surprises through the NFL’s first quarter

Buffalo Bills’ head coach Chan Gailey looks on in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots in their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts September 26, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

The first quarter of the 2011 NFL season is in the books and as usual, there have been a handful of surprises thus far. Here are the five biggest.

5. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers
Everyone knew the NFC West was going to be a crapshoot this season, just like it was a year ago. While many people thought that the Rams would emerge as division champs, it was easy to predict their horrid start given the difficulty of their schedule. The true surprise is the San Francisco 49ers, who are led by a head coach that was serving in the college ranks last year. What Jim Harbaugh has been able to do so far in San Francisco is impressive. The lockout should have caused teams like the 49ers to struggle early on because they didn’t have enough offseason preparation. But instead of floundering, the Niners have flourished. They’re one bad quarter against the Cowboys from being 4-0 and their come-from-behind victory against the Eagles last Sunday will give this team confidence heading forward. While the offensive line is still a major work in progress, the defense has really performed well thanks to guys like Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis and rookie Aldon Smith. With how poorly the rest of the division is, the Niners may finally claim the top spot in the NFC West again.

4. The high-flying Bills
I happen to think last week’s loss to the Bengals was an aberration and that the Bills will continue to be competitive all season. This team was due for a letdown. They were coming off an emotional win against a divisional opponent (the Patriots, no less) the week prior and had to go on the road to face a Cincinnati team that is better than people think. The loss will prove to be a valuable lesson for the Bills, who aren’t good enough yet to take any team for granted. This is still a squad that has practically done everything right to this point. Their passing attack is solid, their young offensive line is overachieving and their defense has been opportunistic and solid against the run. While they may not make the playoffs this season, Chan Gailey has this team headed in the right direction.

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Could the Lions actually contend for a playoff berth in 2011?

Detroit Lions guard Manny Ramirez (L), quarterback Matthew Stafford (2nd L), and their teammates celebrate with fans their victory over the Washington Redskins after their NFL football game in Detroit, Michigan September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every morning I have a routine when I log onto the computer for the day. I read as much NFL content from beat writers, columnists and bloggers that I can, and then I outline story ideas that I want to develop for my own articles.

For a couple of weeks I’ve thought about tackling the Detroit Lions and the possibility that they could contend in 2011. But every time I look down at the Lions on my list of ideas, I bypass them because I believe they’re still a year or two away from competing.

But today, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write about them. Maybe it was because of their impressive performance against the Patriots on Saturday night or the fact that I’m sick of reading about Peyton Manning’s neck, but today was the day I chose the Lions as a topic. And after getting a shocking phone call from an old friend in Detroit, I’m glad I did.

After graduating from Central Michigan University in 2004, I moved to Detroit and lived there for about four years. During that time, I got a job on the promotions team and as a nights and weekends producer for WDFN Sports Radio AM1130. Passing out free swag to people in bars wasn’t the ideal job for a college graduate, but I felt very fortunate to even have a foot in the door at a sports radio station and was more than happy to do the work.

One of my favorite promotional events that I looked forward to every week during the football season was a Monday evening Lions recap show with WDFN host and MLive.com beat writer Tom “Killer” Kowalski. While driving out to the bar and setting up the show together, on-site engineer Albert Dale and I used to talk about our fantasy teams or football games from the previous weekend. When Killer arrived, he and Albert would often trade friendly barbs and I would try to get both of them to bet me on the Monday Night Football game. (I don’t remember Tom ever partaking in my sharking, but Albert and I always had something insignificant on the line.)

Killer was a smart ass but he was funny and extremely likable. He was also kind and generous, and most importantly he cared about people whether his exterior expression showed it or not. He was also a little quirky and it never ceased to amaze me how the big guy always wore shorts, even during the coldest of Detroit winters. Lion fans didn’t always agree with him, but he had a big following because he often told it like it was and yet, he had a way of providing optimism even in the darkest of times (which have come all too often for Detroit fans). He was also a damn fine reporter and always provided quality content, which isn’t the case for every beat writer around the country.

In the middle of writing today’s column, I listened to a voicemail that Albert left for me on my cell phone and I could tell by his tone that something was wrong. Apparently Tom passed away this morning after his fiancé found him unresponsive in his home. The long-time Lions beat writer was only 51-years-old.

When I called Albert back, we both expressed our shock over the news but eventually started talking about all of the nights spent with Tom putting on his show. When I eventually got off the phone, I looked back at my computer screen and saw the half-finished Lions column that I had started.

Yeah, today is a good day to talk Lions football. This one is for you Killer, may you rest in peace.

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