(ALLEN PARK) -- Like it or not, it looks as if the NFL is going to have to start taking the Lions seriously. Their three-year stay as the laughingstock of the league apparently is over.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Lions will maintain their early pace. They are 3-1 with back-to-back road wins for the first time in four years but, as guard Damien Woody said after the 17-10 victory in Atlanta: "We're still very much a work in progress."
And the Lions have been beset by an uncanny set of injuries to some of the key players on the team -- wide receiver Charles Rogers, outside linebacker Boss Bailey, Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly, rookie running back Kevin Jones and -- most recently - rookie wide receiver Roy Williams.
All except Rogers are expected back, but the injury factor eventually has to take its toll.
If the first step back toward NFL contention is getting back to respectability, however, the Lions are on their way, regardless of what happens in the remaining 12 games of the season.
Their only loss in the first four games was a 30-13 drubbing at the hands of the still-unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles, but before and after that game the Lions have shown the kind of improvement president Matt Millen had in mind when he hired coach Steve Mariucci at the end of the 2002 season.
Nobody expected the Lions to compete seriously in the NFC North this year; it was generally assumed it would be at least one more year before they were ready for that.
With three wins in four games -- sitting on top of the division with the Minnesota Vikings -- they're already a step or two ahead of most of the projections.