The Detroit Lions have either gotten over the hump this year or they are going to pull their greatest con job ever.
Since the Lions have been some of the biggest phonies the game has seen since the late 1950s, that would really take some doing.
But this year’s team has passed nearly every test they have taken and they go into Week 16 needing a win over the Chicago Bears or a Philadelphia Eagles loss to the Washington Redskins to earn a spot in the playoffs.
It does not seem likely that either the Lions or the Birds will lose, and the Lions will earn a playoff spot and then have a chance to win the division title if they can find a way to win at Green Bay in the season finale. That’s a completely different issue, and one that’s unlikely to resolve in Detroit’s favor.
But this week against the Bears? That’s going to be a walk in the park – unless the Lions are the biggest chokers of all-time.
Let’s get a couple of facts straight right off the bat. The Lions come into this game with a 10-4 record. The only times the Lions have been 10-4 or better during the last 50 years came in 1970 and 1991.
The 1970 Lions finished 10-4 – they played just 14 games until the 1978 season – and earned a spot in the playoffs as the NFC’s first Wild-Card team . They were subsequently shut out by the Dallas Cowboys 5-0 in the divisional playoffs in what is arguably the worst exhibition of postseason football in the history of the NFL.
The 1991 Lions were coached by Wayne Fontes and went 12-4 to win the NFC Central Division. They trounced the Cowboys 38-6 in the divisional playoffs before getting hammered in the NFC Championship by the Washington Redskins.
The Lions have never been closer to the Super Bowl than they were that day in January of 1992, and there have been almost no close calls since then.
But the team that has been close to the playoffs so many times in recent years has taken a big step forward under Jim Caldwell this year. Instead of gagging games away in the fourth quarter as they regularly did under Jim Schwartz, they have managed to keep their cool in the fourth quarter and come through in the game’s crucial moments.
Caldwell’s calm demeanor and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s maturity may have more to do with Detroit’s turnaround than any other factors. Few thought Caldwell was anything more than a caretaker when he took over the Colts following Tony Dungy’s retirement in 2008.
That may not have been a fair assessment as Caldwell took the Colts to a 14-2 record and the AFC Championship before they were throttled in the Super Bowl by the New Orleans Saints in his first year.
The Colts went 10-6 the following year, and when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury, the Colts went 2-14 and Caldwell was jettisoned by Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay.
Caldwell was invited back to the sidelines by the Lions when they fired the over-caffeinated Jim Schwartz at the end of last season.
Suh has been a talented player since he was selected by the Lions with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft out of Nebraska. In a league filled with physical specimens and massively strong individuals, Suh may be the most physically powerful man in the league.
Throughout his first four seasons, Suh showed off his strength by manhandling 300-plus-pound offensive linemen and making plays in the backfield, but his reputation was marred by regrettable and dirty play. Stomping, eye-gouging, and body-slamming were some of Suh’s more infamous techniques, and it all came to a head when the NFL fined him $100,000 for his low block on Minnesota’s John Sullivan in the early part of the 2013 season.
Since then, Suh has basically followed NFL rules and has not been a law breaker. He has continued to wreak havoc, but he has done it in a legal way. He is one of the best players on the No. 2 defense in the league – behind the Seattle Seahawks – and that unit has keyed the team’s winning ways this season. Suh has 42 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and has batted down two passes.
The Lions don’t appear to be that much more talented than last year’s team, although No. 2 wideout Golden Tate is a remarkable player with 91 catches for 1,224 yards and four TDs. He has 30 more receptions than Calvin Johnson, who has battled injuries all season.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has been solid but not spectacular. He is completing 61.5 percent of his passes for 3,797 yards with a 19-10 TD-interception ratio. A year ago, Stafford threw for 4,650 yards with 29 TDs and a whopping 19 interceptions. Many of those interceptions came at crucial moments in the second half of games, when the Lions regularly turned victory into defeat.
It was easy for Caldwell to point out the Lions’ errors after he took the job. It was quite another to correct those issues. The Lions have learned how to execute down the stretch, and all they need is a victory over the embarrassing Marc Trestman and his emotionless Bears to earn a spot in the postseason.
The Bears seem incapable of winning, and a reasonable effort should secure Detroit the victory. That is, unless the Lions have been fooling us all season and they revert back to type at the worst possible moment.
It shouldn’t happen, but these are the Lions we are talking about. Don’t take anything for granted.