The last time the Detroit Lions were poised to make a run at the playoffs, Barry Sanders was in their backfield.
Sanders now is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a place few if any of the recent Lions will end up. His former team has been rebuilt by GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz, and a win over San Diego on Saturday will secure Detroit an NFC wild-card slot.
Since making the postseason in 1999 at 8-8 — one year after Sanders retired — the Lions have had one winning year (9-7 in 2000) and six last-place finishes.
“You think of the last 10 years, what we’ve gone through — what this organization and what the city and the fans have gone through — to be able to get to the playoffs, to have a successful season, it’s huge,” tackle Jeff Backus said. “People have been waiting a long time. I’ve been waiting my whole career to do it.”
Backus joined Detroit in 2001, and seven years later was on the only 0-16 team in NFL history. These Lions, led by star receiver Calvin Johnson and headline-making defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, started the season 5-0, slumped, but by beating San Diego they will be 10-5.
And in the playoffs.
“I’m proud to be a Detroit Lion,” Backus said. “I take a lot of pride in what we do here and the emphasis we’ve had on trying to get it turned around, and things are starting to pay off. We’ve just got to finish it out the right way.”
So does San Diego. The Chargers (7-7) still have playoff hopes, too, after winning three in a row.
“Yeah, I think it’s a playoff game for both teams from an approach standpoint,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “I would like to think we approach all of them that way, but certainly being two weeks left in the season and ... they clinch it (if) they win. If we win, we stay alive, so it’s obviously a big-time game for both teams.”
Atlanta also can grab a wild card if it beats New Orleans on Monday night.
The holiday weekend began with Reggie Wayne catching a 1-yard touchdown pass from Dan Orlovsky with 19 seconds left to lead the Indianapolis Colts past the Houston Texans 19-16 Thursday night. The Colts (2-13) have won two straight, both against division foes, behind Orlovsky, the former Texans quarterback who lost his first nine NFL starts. The Texans (10-5) fell to 0-10 in Indianapolis. Arian Foster had 23 carries for 158 yards and scored the Texans’ only touchdown on the third play of the game.
Other games Saturday with playoff implications — well, just about every game has such meaning this weekend — have Philadelphia at Dallas, St. Louis at Pittsburgh, Cleveland at Baltimore, Denver at Buffalo, Oakland at Kansas City, the New York Giants at the Jets, Arizona at Cincinnati, Jacksonville at Tennessee, and San Francisco at Seattle.
Also Saturday, it’s Miami at New England, Minnesota at Washington and Tampa Bay at Carolina.
Green Bay hosts Chicago on Christmas night.
Atlanta (9-5) at New Orleans (11-3)
It’s simple for the Saints: a win and they own the NFC South title. New Orleans has won six straight since an inexplicable defeat at St. Louis, scoring 197 points in that streak. The Saints also have won five of six against Atlanta, including 26-23 in overtime last month when Falcons coach Mike Smith’s overtime gamble on fourth-and-1 failed.
While Atlanta needs lots help to surpass the Saints even with a victory in prime time, it gets an NFC wild card with a win.
Chicago (7-7) at Green Bay (13-1)
With the pursuit of perfection gone pfft, the Packers need to get healthy for the playoffs. They have lost leading receiver Greg Jennings until January, and injuries have hit both lines.
But they also need one more win to secure not having to leave Lambeau Field in the NFC playoffs.
Chicago still has slim wild-card hopes despite losing its last four. With the second string playing at many key offensive sports, keeping up with Green Bay’s prolific offense is an even slimmer hope.
Philadelphia (6-8) at Dallas (8-6)
Hard to believe the Eagles remain alive in the NFC East, yet there they are. Win out, have the Giants fall to the Jets and then beat Dallas, and guess who walks off with the division? Yep, Philly.
The last time they met, the Eagles romped 34-7, their best performance of the year — until routing the Jets last Sunday. The pass rush, led by Jason Babin with 18 sacks, 4 1/2 short of Michael Strahan’s mark, could give Tony Romo problems; no wonder owner Jerry Jones said he is “scared” of the Eagles.
St. Louis (2-12) at Pittsburgh (10-4)
Some people think the Steelers will rest Ben Roethlisberger and his injured left ankle, although the quarterback won’t be too fond of that with playoff implications involved. Those same folks believe the Steelers can handle the awful Rams with Charlie Batch behind center. Or maybe without any QB at all.
The Rams’ Steven Jackson needs 34 yards rushing to become the seventh player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards in seven or more consecutive seasons.
Cleveland (4-10) at Baltimore (10-4)
The Ravens must falter for Pittsburgh to have a shot at the AFC North; Baltimore swept the season series. And the Ravens sure did falter last week at San Diego.
Still, Baltimore hasn’t lost to Cleveland in the last seven meetings, the Browns are decimated by injuries and distracted by the mishandling of QB Colt McCoy’s concussion.
Denver (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9)
The Tebow Express was derailed by New England last week, but now faces one of the NFL’s biggest flops since the midway point. While Tim Tebow, Willis McGahee, a staunch defense and some clever coaching by John Fox have taken the Broncos from 2-5 to the verge of the division title — a win and an Oakland loss does the job — Buffalo has been stampeded the last seven weeks.
Oakland (7-7) at Kansas City (6-8)
Strangely, the Chiefs remain alive in the AFC West and by beating their archrivals, getting an upset by Buffalo and then taking down the Broncos next week in Denver, they could walk off with the prize. Barring, of course, San Diego sweeping its two games in that scenario.
The way the Chiefs’ defense came alive last week in Romeo Crennel’s first game as interim coach, it certainly could shut down Oakland, which continues to hurt itself with mistakes, especially penalties.
New York Giants (7-7)
at New York Jets (8-6)
For all the local blather surrounding the first Big Apple matchup that counts in four years, this game doesn’t move the meter a whole lot outside the New York area. Both teams have disappointed, with the Giants losing five of their last six, including an inept performance against Washington last week after taking control of the NFC East. Eli Manning is having his best season, far superior to what Mark Sanchez has done for the Jets, and that quarterbacking edge could be decisive.
New York — uh, the guys in green — can move very close to an AFC wild card with a win, plus Cincinnati and Oakland losses.
Arizona (7-7) at Cincinnati (8-6)
Among the most stunning numbers in the NFL standings are the 7-7 records accompanying the Cardinals and Seahawks. Arizona started 1-6, but coach Ken Whisenhunt and staff have done nearly as strong a job keeping the faith as they did back in 2008. All the Cardinals did then was come within a few minutes of the NFL title.
Their surge has been sparked by a rapidly improving defense and a tremendous knack for winning in overtime: 3-0.
San Francisco (11-3) at Seattle (7-7)
Coming off an impressive victory over Pittsburgh in prime time, the 49ers have another tough chore. On short rest, they travel to Seattle, which has won five of six and is in the wild-card chase. The Niners can’t afford to stumble if they want to earn a first-round playoff bye, so don’t look for them to rest many regulars.
Marshawn Lynch has been a terror in the ground game with touchdowns in 10 straight games and has gone over 1,000 yards rushing for Seattle, which needs lots of help along with two wins to make the postseason.
at Tennessee (7-7)
If the Titans wind up 9-7 and a loss to the previously winless Colts costs them a playoff berth, they can write a country ballad wailing about their miseries and sing it at the Grand Ole Opry. Tennessee shouldn’t struggle with another inept opponent, the Jaguars, but who knows after last week’s flop?
“From the first play through the whole game, we had way too many mental mistakes to be going to the playoffs or having a shot at even going to the playoffs,” receiver Nate Washington said.
Miami (5-9) at New England (11-3)
For those who criticize this version of the Patriots for being relatively defenseless and not up to the level of their past AFC East championship teams, remember if they win out, they have home-field advantage for the conference playoffs. With Tom Brady chucking the ball to Wes Welker, and with powerful TE Rob Gronkowski catching it, then running past or over people, the offense hasn’t slowed.
After replacing Tony Sparano with Todd Bowles as coach last week, the Dolphins won at Buffalo. They are 5-2 in their last seven, so maybe Sparano knew what he was doing in getting them turned around before he was canned.
Minnesota (2-12) at Washington (5-9)
Coming off a lopsided victory over the Giants, the Redskins are trying to build something for next year, with rookie Roy Helu a major contributor at running back. The Vikings soon can start building, too, with a very high draft pick after what has been an extremely disappointing first full season for coach Leslie Frazier. DE Jared Allen is five sacks from Strahan’s record.
Tampa Bay (4-10) at Carolina (5-9)
Tampa has gone from 4-2 and a contender to the bottom of the NFC South, jeopardizing coach Raheem Morris’ job. Only Philadelphia has committed more turnovers than the Bucs’ 32 and the defense has come unglued.
That bodes well for the improving Panthers, who have the playmakers on offense with Cam Newton, Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olsen to send Tampa to a ninth straight defeat.