ALLEN PARK, Mich. — In many ways, the first half of this Detroit Lions’ season has gone the complete opposite of how most would have expected.
No touchdown passes from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, but a respectable, emerging run game?
The secondary, widely considered the team’s weak link, is depleted by injuries week after week, but the Lions still rank No. 7 in total defense and No. 8 in pass defense?
A home loss to Minnesota but a victory at Philadelphia?
It hasn’t gone by the script, that’s for sure, but the Lions have battled back from a 1-3 start to win three of their last four, including two road victories, to get back in the race for a NFC playoff berth.
“Roller coaster” is how center Dominic Raiola described the first half of the season.
“We had some chances to win some games and didn’t, but we came back and won some games late that we needed to win,” added Stafford, who has eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions. “I think the last two weeks, we played some of our better football this season. Offense, defense, special teams, everybody combined. It’s going to take that kind of effort every week to get to where we want to be.”
Where they want to be is back in the playoffs for the second straight season, which seemed unlikely when they ended September on a three-game losing streak.
But the offense has come to life with 59 points in back-to-back victories over Seattle and Jacksonville, the defense has held together surprisingly well under the circumstances and the special teams have bounced back from a woeful stretch in which they allowed four touchdowns on punt/kick returns in two weeks.
Put it all together and the Lions are right back in the race, one of four teams with four losses that are currently vying for the second and final wild card spot in the conference.
Seattle and Minnesota are 5-4, Detroit and Tampa Bay 4-4.
Ahead of them in the race for the NFC’s six playoff bids are Atlanta (8-0), Chicago (7-1), San Francisco (6-2), the New York Giants (6-3) and Green Bay (6-3).
For the Lions, the schedule the rest of the way is daunting. Their opponents in the first eight games have a combined record of 33-34. The teams they’ll face in the final eight are currently 48-19.
That includes Atlanta, Chicago, Houston (7-1) and home-and-home with Green Bay.
The only remaining opponent with a losing record at this time is Arizona (4-5).
The one plus is that five of the final seven games will be played at Ford Field in Detroit.
“You want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Raiola said. “I’m excited about what we have ahead of us. It’s a hell of a challenge. But I like where we’re at right now as a team. We’re moving in the right direction.”
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, right?
The first half didn’t kill the Lions, although at times early on it appeared they were on the brink of destruction.
A couple of wins combined with the NFL’s parity has brought them right back into contention where they’ll be playing meaningful games in November and possibly into December.
So far, every game except for one — last Sunday’s 31-14 victory at Jacksonville — has been decided by eight points or less.
The Lions needed late rallies for their first three victories. The four losses have been by a combined 24 points.
“I think there is something to being battle-tested,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “I think there is something to having the confidence that you’re always in games or you can do whatever’s necessary to catch up.”
After the 1-3 start, Schwartz challenged his players to show the mental toughness it takes to put the negativity aside and get back on track, according to Raiola.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but they’ve answered that challenge enough to be considered a playoff contender again.
“I think we responded well to what Jim (Schwartz) said,” Raiola said. “Everybody did their job in what they needed to take care of to get us back to this point.
“It’s the mental toughness. Tough teams win. We feel like we’re a tough team mentally. We can overcome whatever. I don’t think there’s anything we can’t overcome.”