TORONTO - Midnight is about to strike on the Detroit Lions' season.
It was a feel-good story while it lasted, but the deck now appears to be clearly stacked against the once- plucky Lions, beginning with their game this Sunday on the road in the Big Easy.
It's not impossible to imagine that the Lions could topple the Saints but, given the way the two teams are playing these days, it seems extremely unlikely.
If as expected, the Lions lose to New Orleans, they would drop to 7-5 and be behind the 8-ball in the wild-card race.
We're assuming that Atlanta will move to 8-4 by beating Houston and third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, while the Chicago Bears and backup QB Caleb Hanie hold off the Kansas City Chiefs and also improve to 8-4.
Under that scenario, the Bears would be one game up before road games at Denver, Green Bay and Minnesota and a home tilt against Seattle. Even without Jay Cutler, they should win three of those games and at the worst, go 2-2.
The Falcons, if they beat Houston, are home free. After that, they get
Carolina, Jacksonville, are at New Orleans and close out against Tampa Bay. They can win three of those games in their sleep.
How about the Lions?
Their final four is mostly tough sledding. Following the Saints, they have a home date against the Vikings, which they should win, are on the road against the Raiders, at home against San Diego and close out in Green Bay against the Packers, who could be looking at that game to close out an undefeated regular season. No way the Lions go 3-1.
We see them finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs because injuries scuttled their running game while lack of discipline, costly penalties and a suspect secondary put them second best against the big boys they met this season.
The five-game win streak to open things up, a run that included victories over the Bears and Cowboys, was a great start, but the Lions simply weren't talented enough, disciplined enough, to keep the momentum going.
Since then, they have met four teams of quality and lost them all, dropping games to San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago and Green Bay.
On Sunday, you can add New Orleans to that list.
The Lions are simply this year's version of the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that went 10-6 thanks to a soft schedule and finished out of the playoffs.
They are headed in the right direction but will have to wait another year.
ORANGE CRUSH II
Back in the mid-1970s, the Denver Broncos were a team defined by its Orange Crush defence. It featured a colourful collection of defenders such as linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson plus defensive linemen such as Lyle Alzado and Rubin Carter.
These days, the news coming out of Denver is a suffocating wave of Tim Tebow hysteria, thanks to the unorthodox quarterback's Christian beliefs mingled with his ability to overcome his own passing shortcomings and lead his team to one comeback victory after another.
The Broncos may be 5-1 under Tebow, but a great deal of credit for that record should also go to their defence, a unit that has kept the games close and allowed Tebow to engineer his fourth-quarter magic.
The one game the Broncos D let get away was on Oct. 30 when they were blown out 45-10 by the Lions.
But since then, four consecutive wins, the Broncos have allowed just 24 points to the Raiders, 10 to Kansas City, 13 to the Jets and 13 against the Chargers in an overtime win.
In their past six games, the Broncos have posted 18 quarterback sacks and allowed the opposition to convert just 22 of 80 third downs (27.5%).
Their defence has been a force equal to that of Tebow.
This Sunday, the Broncos will be looking to move to 7-5 and perhaps into a first-place tie in the AFC West with the Oakland Raiders, who face a much tough opponent in the Miami Dolphins.
Look for their defence to once again pave the way.
PAYING THE PRICE
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson confirmed he was fined $10,000 US by the NFL for his excessive celebration of a touchdown reception in Sunday's game at New York.
In his choreographed routine, Johnson mimicked Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress, shooting himself in his leg before flopping to the ground. It was a juvenile, goofball manoeuvre that far too many athletes engage in, in the hope of being singled out in ESPN highlight clips.
Instead it led to a penalty, a screwed up kickoff and a Jets TD in their 28-24 win.