As the Detroit Lions prepare for their matchup with the New Orleans Saints this Sunday, they are also preparing for a December playoff push.
Playing in meaningful games at this time of year is unfamiliar territory for the Lions organization, which has missed the playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons, tied for the longest current streak in the NFL.
Not only have the Lions been absent from the playoffs for more than a decade, they have usually been eliminated from contention well before the season’s homestretch.
In 11 seasons, the Lions have entered December with a realistic post-season opportunity only twice. First, in 2000, when a Week 17 loss resulted in a post-season miss and most recently in 2007, when a 6-2 start deteriorated as the Lions won only one game during the season’s second half.
At 7-4, the Lions enter Week 13 with an identical record to their 2000 counterparts, hoping to prevent the strong start from ending in disappointment.
The team's 5-0 start and current circumstances – a 7-4 record and high-pressure games on tap – are not ideal. Still, there is no doubt many of the Lions squads over the last decade would envy this opportunity.
“It’s a position that we would have killed to be in last year,” said coach Jim Schwartz on Wednesday. “We’re 7-4, (and) the Saints team is 8-3, we’re one game behind them. It’s an NFC team and with a win, we’re ahead of them, we’re not tied, because they’ll be tiebreakers involved and things like that. So those things become realistic this time of year and it’s just part of where we are. But it’s a position that we would have killed to be in last year. We’re in it right now and it’s our time to do something with it.”
If the Lions manage to upset the heavily favored Saints, they would improve upon their mark while gaining a tiebreaker against a potential wildcard contender -- along with earning benefits within other tiebreaker categories (common opponents and conference record).
Although, it may be too early to begin considering potential playoff scenarios.
“Our goal is to take it week by week and game by game,” cautioned quarterback Matthew Stafford. “I think that’s what you have to do. You can’t look ahead on the schedule and you can’t say ‘if this happens and this happens’ it’s about going to play football on Sunday and getting wins.”
With five games left in the season, the Lions still certainly will be able to control their own fate.
“I think we are all going to rally around each other and go out there and give it a shot,” said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. “We definitely have the talent, players, coaching staff and the system to do it. It’s on us as players to go out there and perform.”
If the Lions are successful in securing a playoff berth, it would be a significant achievement for more than those wearing honolulu blue.
“It would mean a lot to us,” said defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. “Especially with our past, it would mean a lot to everybody, not just us but the whole city of Detroit.”
The Lions players feel a connection with the city they represent. Like their city, they are attempting to overcome recent struggles while many individuals feel as if they were underappreciated or overlooked in the past – only strengthening the team’s desire secure a playoff position.
“It’d be incredible,” said receiver Nate Burleson. “I joke around with Rob Sims - because he came from Seattle – and a couple other guys that (this team has) a big group of players that nobody wanted so that’s possibly why we play so passionately, because we were forgotten on other teams. So, to get a playoff berth, it would mean the world to a lot of guys in this locker room and once we get that, it’s something we will cherish and not let go of.”
In order for the Lions to play past the first week of January, they must be focused on the first week of December. If they become consumed with external factors or future contests they will make the task much more difficult.
What needs to happen for the Lions to make the playoffs remains a rather simple formula: win.
“If we win games, everything will handle itself…” said Burleson. “We have enough to think about but if everybody just focuses on the next game, almost like we did at the beginning of the year where everyone just said ‘you know what, we just want to win the next game’ if we do that for the rest of the season, you’ll see Detroit in the playoffs.”
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