DETROIT -- The Lions and Eagles entered Sunday's game at Ford Field in the same place -- atop their respective divisions -- and with identical 2-0 records. But after the NFC showdown ended with Detroit having been shown how it's done, it was clear that they're in different classes.
Perhaps sooner rather than later the Lions will graduate to the next level and claim their seats at the lunch table with the other contenders. But for now, they're still wannabes, sophomores, so to speak, who are full of potential but not quite ready to hang with the league's upperclassmen. Detroit had its first hard lesson of the year on Sunday courtesy of Philadelphia, which, in prevailing 30-13, taught the Lions a few things about how a talented team becomes an accomplished team.
"When plays had to be made," said Lions guard Damien Woody, a former Patriot who serves as something of a teacher's aide during his new team's ongoing education on how to become winners, "they made them. And we didn't."
Roy Williams, the Lions' beast of a rookie receiver, hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass from Joey Harrington with about 8˝ minutes to go for the final margin, but the game actually was closer than the score would indicate. The difference between a blowout and an upset was, as Woody said, really just a few plays, some big, some huge.
Harrington to Stephen Alexander for 1 yard, on third and 2 from Detroit's 41-yard line when it was still a scoreless game in the first quarter, was big. So was McNabb to L.J. Smith for 25 yards on third and 9 from the Lions' 13, followed two plays later by another play of significance, McNabb to Freddie Mitchell for 48 yards down the middle and into the weak area of a two-deep zone. That led to a McNabb touchdown plunge, a complement to his two passing touchdowns among his 29 completions (in 42 attempts) for 356 yards against a Lions secondary that was missing corners Dre' Bly and Andre' Goodman. That's two 300-yard games in three weeks for the league's passing leader.
When a scrambling Harrington dropped the ball and Roderick Hood picked it up at the Lions' 29, that became huge. On the next play, McNabb and Terrell Owens, who ran a fly pattern past Fernando Bryant, made their fifth scoring connection of the season. It was 14-0, precisely what the Lions didn't want to do -- get behind early.
But they still weren't out of it. The Lions went three and out on their next possession when Harrington hit Williams for 8 yards on third and 10 (that was big), and the Eagles proceeded to drive 87 yards in 12 plays and score for a third time, this one a 1-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to tight end/long snapper Mike Bartrum, who came into the game with four catches and three touchdowns in his 10-year career. Philadelphia converted third and 4, third and 8, and third and 12 on the drive; 4 of 6 third downs in the first half; and 6 of 14 in the game.
After the score, Bartrum set up in the back of the end zone in the long-snapping position and snapped the ball through Smith's legs 20 yards back to McNabb. The choreographed celebration drew a 15-yard taunting penalty, but the Eagles didn't care. They were having fun -- with the Lions, like a gang of big kids playing "keep away" with the very thing the Lions are trying to gain: respectability.
"I really believe," said Lions coach Steve Mariucci, "and I told the guys this, that I think we're closer than the score might indicate."
"I'll give them credit, because they're a good team," Bryant said. "But if you take away the big play down the middle, and my touchdown, if we just hold them to three points on those plays, that's an eight-point difference going into halftime, and it's a whole different ball game. But that's the difference between them and us right now, that they're able to make those plays and we're not."
The Lions never were able to make a game of it. Bartrum's touchdown made it 21-0, and now Detroit was out of it. The offense starting slowly, as it did in the first two games, had caught up to the Lions.
"The teams [we beat] weren't of the caliber of Philly, and it didn't really hurt us," Woody said. "But we started off slow, and the next thing you know, we've got to jump out of our game plan and go right into what they want us to be -- one-dimensional."
Thus it mattered little that Detroit's backfield was out of the game with injuries, tailback Kevin Jones with an ankle and fullback Cory Schlesinger with a hamstring. The Lions were forced to be a passing team from there on in against a blitzing defense. Harrington was under pressure, sometimes self-imposed, even on those occasions when he had time to throw.
"They didn't get to me, but they disrupted the play enough where I didn't have anything left," Harrington said. "I'm sure I'll go back and see a couple of things that I missed."
McNabb, meanwhile, isn't missing anyone these days. He hit eight receivers on Sunday, Owens six times for 107 yards, including a 55-yarder in the fourth that helped set up David Akers' third field goal of the second half. McNabb is completing about 70 percent of his throws. With a big lead, he was able to settle for check downs in the second half. He later admitted that the Eagles weren't as crisp nor were they as aggressive after halftime. The Eagles, believe it or not, can play better.
"Our main goal is to be the No. 1 offense in the league," McNabb said. "The positive thing is you can look at the film and feel pretty good about the plays that you're making and correct the mistakes."
The Lions will learn from getting schooled by a mature, efficient team such as the Eagles. Philly is where they want to be. But there are no shortcuts, no skipping grades.
Remember, the Eagles were at that point once, too.
"They're just like we were a few years ago," McNabb said. "We went 5-11 (in 1999) and everybody thought we were the doormats of the NFL and no one wanted to play at The Vet [Veterans Stadium]. It's really a confidence thing, and once that happens, you bring in guys to help the team out, and they'll be all right. They have the nucleus on the offensive side. They're just young right now. Once they get everybody healthy, they'll be all right."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com