Lions may be winless, but they possess one of NFL's best

A cruelty of this callous 0-11 Detroit Lions season was the setup. The Lions were a buoyant 4-0 in preseason games. They even toppled the defending champion Giants in both teams' preseason opener.

"Yeah, everybody thought we had something going in camp," recalled Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson. "Everybody was on the same page. Good karma."

How does 4-0 turn into 0-11?

The Lions have done their part in earning it.

The nation gets the chance to see firsthand when Tennessee (10-1) plays at Detroit in the 69th edition of this franchises' Thanksgiving Day game tradition. They will see the Lions continue their trek toward 0-16 ruin -- or maybe, just maybe, shockingly see the Lions plug the damn, bandage the bleeding.

Win a game.

Count on Johnson to do his part.

This amazing player can be likened to a rose in a bed of weeds.

He was the second pick of the draft in 2007 and has turned a modest rookie year (48 catches, 756 receiving yards) into a blossoming second stint (already 48 catches, 905 receiving yards). His receiving touchdowns have grown from four to eight. His average yards per catch from 15.8 to 18.9. His long grab from 49 to 96.

Up, up, up for Calvin Johnson as the Lions have gone down, down, down.

Because the Lions have been so pitiful, this is the only shot for the team to be featured in a nationally televised game. It is the only chance in 2008 for the nation to catch a lengthy glimpse of, and appreciate, this artist.

He's 6-feet-5 inches and 239 pounds of graceful, acrobatic, rare ability at receiver. As humble as he is smart. As hurt and as disappointed as you can imagine.

"I don't go out too much," Johnson said. "The last few Sundays our games have been blacked out in Detroit. We've got good fans, but nobody wants to see you when you struggle. They want to see winners.

"I don't think we are going to talk too much about this game. But we are not going to lie down. We will go and fight. It's another opportunity. Another opportunity to go out and get a win. Nobody wants to be a winless team. For me, it is a pride thing. Nobody here wants to quit. But starting from Day 1 with the season, our execution wasn't there. Same story every week."

He has played this season with four different quarterbacks (Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton and current starter Daunte Culpepper). He has been a part of Lions games where they were buried early. He has been involved in those where the Lions led early and were buried late.

Johnson, bless him, had the patience to recall what he could about each rotten, reeking defeat:

» Lost 34-21 at Atlanta: "Got behind early. We didn't exactly quit, but we didn't man up, either."

» Lost 48-25 vs. Green Bay: "Got behind, got back in the game, not able to close it out."

» Lost 31-13 at San Francisco: "One as a whole where we didn't play well. No breaks at all. Our worst game of the year."

» Lost 34-7 vs. Chicago: "Nothing going."

» Lost 12-10 at Minnesota: "Some calls hurt us in that game."

» Lost 28-21 at Houston: "Hung in there. Not enough."

» Lost 25-17 vs. Washington: "Don't remember. That one just sort of blends in."

» Lost 27-23 at Chicago: "Did a little bit, couldn't close it out."

» Lost 38-14 vs. Jacksonville: "They had a dominant running game."

» Lost 31-22 at Carolina: "Should have won that one. We went down there and played hard."

» Lost 38-20 vs. Tampa Bay: "Up 17-0. Another game we should have had."

And through all of that misery, Johnson has managed to rank fifth in NFL receptions and second in touchdown catches. No NFL receiver among the top 10 in receiving yards averages more per catch than Johnson.

Doug Williams, a Tampa Bay personnel executive, watched Johnson closely in Detroit last Sunday during the Buccaneers' victory.

Williams said: "When you look around this league, there are no Calvin Johnsons. There is only oneCalvin Johnson. Look at this guy -- lanky, long, strong, can fly, jumps, an athlete. Most receivers have a deficiency or two. Not him. In this league you could go to just about any team and they would trade you their two starting receivers for this one guy. Not very often does a 6-5 receiver like this come along."

Scouts were saying some of these things about Johnson before he was drafted. Clean. That was the word often used about his game on the field, his persona off it.

The Titans might double- and triple-team Johnson.

And if defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is not effectively blocked, Culpepper will not have time to find Johnson. Consider that Johnson, despite his successes this season, has yet to enjoy double-digit receptions in a game.

The Lions offense ranks 29th in the league in points per game (17.5). It ranks 29th in rushing yards (83.4). The Lions defense ranks 32nd in points allowed (31.5). In home games they have allowed 48, 34, 25, 38 and 38 points. The defense ranks 32nd in rushing yards allowed (166.7).

Little wonder Titans coach Jeff Fisher is insisting this is the time for his team to return to a grinding ground game.

"I've been working on details," Johnson said. "I've been learning to focus more when I'm tired. I'm not happy, but I'm trying to be productive and contribute what I can. All could change so fast for us. The NFL turns over quickly. I never want to let anyone here down. I'm going to give it my all. But we just haven't been able to translate hard work into Sundays."

He is hoping they can translate it into Thursday.

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