Kitna’s early prediction becoming closer to true

DETROIT – When Jon Kitna first said he would be disappointed if the Detroit Lions didn’t win at least 10 games this season, most people who have followed the lackluster franchise chuckled.

The quarterback went a step farther last week, boldly saying the Lions were capable of special things such as winning the Super Bowl.

Eyes rolled, heads shook from side to side and some joked the overly optimistic Kitna should be leading one of the city’s sagging auto companies.

But when the Lions pounded the Denver Broncos 44-7 on Sunday and improved to 6-2, even jaded cynics were converted into true believers.

The odds are in Detroit’s favor to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, snapping the second-longest postseason drought in the NFL.

The schedule, however, is not.

Detroit’s second half includes road games at Arizona (Sunday), Minnesota, San Diego and Green Bay in what might be a huge game for both teams in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale.

At Ford Field, where Detroit is 4-0, the New York Giants, Packers, Dallas and Kansas City each will be tough to beat.

If the Lions can get through that and earn a postseason bid in January, however, don’t be shocked if they’re playing in February.

Yes, at the Super Bowl.

Detroit could conceivably crumble down the stretch. Evidence supporting that opinion includes two blowout losses on the road this season, a history of one playoff victory since winning the NFL title a half-century ago, and a league-high 72 losses from 2001-06.

The Lions lost to the bottom feeders in the NFC East, getting embarrassed 56-21 at Philadelphia in Week 3 and 34-3 at Washington two weeks later.

Since then, they have looked impressive in three straight wins over the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Chicago and against the banged-up Broncos.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’re 6-2 at the halfway point,” said offensive tackle Jeff Backus, Detroit’s No. 1 pick in 2001. “We’re playing our best football right now, and we need to continue to improve to get to that elite status.

“New England and Indy are the elite teams because they have consistently done it. Two games isn’t consistently doing it.”

The Lions are getting contributions in each facet of the game and are buying into Rod Marinelli’s one-snap-at-a-time mantra that he repeats so often they probably hear it in their sleep.

In his second season under team president Matt Millen, Marinelli has figured out a way to motivate one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Shaun Rogers has simply been unstoppable, blowing up blocking schemes to make plays for himself and teammates.

A secondary that was expected to struggle after losing starters Dre’ Bly and Terrence Holt has been sensational.

The Lions have an NFL-high 14 interceptions, helping them lead the league with 24 takeaways and 90 points off turnovers. Detroit trails just the Patriots and Colts with a plus-8 turnover margin, the category that traditionally is tied to winning and losing more than any other statistic.

Opposing defenses don’t know what to do because Mike Martz has shown the willingness to hand the ball off to running back Kevin Jones, bucking his reputation as a pass-happy offensive coordinator.

The much-maligned offensive linemen have, in turn, become more effective because they love to open holes for the running game in part because it keeps defenses honest and makes it easier to pass-block.

Kitna has two game-breaking receivers, Roy Williams and rookie Calvin Johnson, along with unsung options in Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey. The QB has proven he can protect the football, too, with no turnovers during Detroit’s three-game winning streak.

Kicker Jason Hanson is as effective as he has ever been in his 16 seasons; punter Nick Harris has been pinning teams deep in their end; and Rogers may block kicks better than anyone in league history. Rogers blocked the 11th kick of his career earlier this season to give him more than anyone since 1991, a decade before his career even began.

Combined, the three phases have put Detroit only a game behind Green Bay in the NFC North, setting up an intriguing matchup on Thanksgiving at Ford Field. In the two home games after that, the Lions also will have a shot at showing they’re legitimate in the second-tier conference when the Giants and Cowboys visit.

Quietly, Millen has been watching what once was considered his mess become magnificent.

The Super Bowl-winning linebacker, who was one of the top TV analysts, has been criticized as much as any executive in sports since he was handed a front-office job for the first time in 2001.

Hundreds of fans once marched outside Ford Field calling for him to be canned and “Fire Mil-len” chants have been heard in other arenas and stadiums throughout the state over the years.

Jubilation has replaced frustration, leading to “Let’s Go Lions” chants at home games.

Millen, though, is not lashing back at his critics or publicly talking about the turnaround, but linebacker Boss Bailey hopes the team president is enjoying his long-awaited success.

“He deserves it,” Bailey said. “It’ll get some heat off him. It’s been a struggle, but some things take time.”