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Lions letdown? Niners pose big test for dominant Detroit

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Every Thursday, Steve Wyche will examine a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.

The Lions vs. Success

It's really good in the Motor City right now. The Lions are 5-0 and it's hard not to buy into them being legitimate playoff contenders. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is on an elevated plane, quarterback Matthew Stafford is healthy and showing us how good he is, the defensive front is its own haunted house and Detroit unleashed a taste of an explosive running game Monday night.

Now comes the hard part. This weekend, the Lions have to deal with a rugged, upstart, one-loss 49ers team that's feeling pretty much as good about itself as Detroit does. The tougher matchup for the Lions will be against themselves, though.

For three straight weeks, the Lions have engaged in mentally and physically grueling games in which they've had to dig pretty deep in the fortitude department. Detroit rallied from deficits of at least 20 points in road games at Minnesota and Dallas then played at a feverish tenor for four quarters against Chicago in the franchise's first Monday night game in 10 years.

Maintaining that level of focus and effort is hard for any team, but for the Lions, this is new. A letdown seems almost natural. But it could easily happen to the 49ers, too. After all, they are the team that has to travel and playing in front of success-starved fans at Ford Field won't be much fun, as the Bears just found out.

This should be the top game of Week 6 and, as crazy as it might seem, a playoff preview.

Falcons' DBs vs. Cam Newton

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton will play his first pro game in his hometown when the Panthers play the Falcons in Atlanta. Newton is among the NFL's top four passers and the Falcons rank 28th against the pass.

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has been a thorn to the Falcons regardless of who has thrown him the ball and he is playing at a level that we haven't seen in years. He has matchup advantages whether he is playing wide or out of the slot, and unless he can be re-routed off the line of scrimmage with safety help over the top, he could go off.

I'm interested to see Smith against right cornerback Dunta Robinson, who is really catching heat after failing to distinguish himself after signing a six-year, $57 million free-agent deal in 2010. Based on stats, Robinson has been targeted 27 times this season and allowed 21 catches -- an awful percentage. To be fair, those stats could be skewed because it's hard to tell what coverage that he's playing and he might not have been the victim.

The bigger issue is the fact that Robinson isn't making many plays on the ball. If Robinson's going to win battles with Smith, he's going to have to make plays on the ball because Smith goes up and gets it in traffic. Smith's playing hungry again and that is a scary thing.

The Panthers are the trendy pick, but I think Atlanta gets back on track, in part because of the hamstring injury to wide receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons could be forced to get back to being a running team that moves the ball in small bites rather than chunks. Lately, they have become too fascinated with being an explosive team.

By trying to change so much, they lost their identity. They might be able to regain that this week.

Chicago's turnstiles against Minnesota's defense

If Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is walking without any difficulty when he's 45 years old, it probably means that he got traded after this season. The beating he's taking is almost unfathomable and it could get worse this week against the Vikings.

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Chicago's porous offensive line has yet to face a team that gets after the quarterback like the Vikings, who have 16 sacks -- second only to the Giants (18) and tied with the Eagles. Jared Allen has a league-high 8.5 sacks and fellow end Brian Robison -- one of the most unheralded players in the NFL -- has 4.5.

No matter what Chicago's players and coaches say about everyone sharing in the blame for Cutler getting hit, his protection has been horrible. Even when the Bears use tight end and backs in maximum protection, Cutler is being pressured and taking hits.

If Chicago can get up on Minnesota and offensive coordinator Mike Martz resists his urge to pass, Cutler could avoid another game serving as a piñata.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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