After a decade of losing, the Detroit Lions are in the playoffs.
And they made sure the San Diego Chargers are out.
With their fans chanting ”PLAYOFFS” for the final minutes, Detroit got there for the first time since 1999 after Matthew Stafford threw three touchdown passes in the first half to beat the Chargers 38-10 Saturday.
The Lions (10-5) have won three straight after a seven-game slump to earn a wild-card spot in the playoffs, turning around their franchise after the NFL’s only 0-16 season just three years ago.
Following the game, coach Jim Schwartz and his players did a victory lap at Ford Field, high-fiving fans in the front row.
”There’s going to be a time that we don’t celebrate getting to the playoffs, but it’s not going to be tonight,” Schwartz said. ”It’s been a long time coming.”
No one has been waiting longer than owner William Clay Ford.
Ford, whose first season leading the franchise was in 1964, was handed a keepsake in the jubilant locker room.
”We gave him the game ball,” said center Dominic Raiola, who endured a string of miserable seasons after Detroit drafted him in 2001.
After Raiola’s postgame news conference, he gave Stafford a bear hug.
”I’m excited for them, more than for myself and some of the other young guys,” the 22-year-old Stafford said.
According to the Chargers (7-8), they will not be in the postseason for a second straight year after making it five times in a six-season stretch. And that might cost coach Norv Turner his job.
”I’ve been concentrating every week as well as I can on getting this team ready to play and doing the things we need to do,” Turner said. ”We all know that’s something that’s discussed at the end of the year.”
Knowing they could move into the postseason simply by winning, the Lions held San Diego scoreless until midway through the third quarter, when Philip Rivers threw an 11-yard pass to Malcom Floyd to make it 24-7.
Detroit, though, closed strong to restore the rout.
The Lions and the Buffalo Bills started the season with the league’s longest playoff droughts at 11 seasons. Detroit hasn’t been in the playoffs since Barry Sanders was its star running back and its drought is over because a decades-long search for a franchise quarterback ended with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Coming off the league’s only 0-16 season, Detroit selected Stafford and kept him healthy for the first time this season.
Stafford was almost perfect in the first half against San Diego, completing 21 of 26 passes for 260 yards with three TDs. He capped the first drive with a 7-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew, threw a 3-yarder to Kevin Smith in the second quarter and connected with Calvin Johnson from 14 yards just before halftime to give the Lions a 24-0 lead.
Stafford finished with 373 yards passing to give him 4,518 this year, breaking Scott Mitchell’s single-season team record from 1995. Perhaps not coincidently, that season marked the last time the Lions had double digits in wins.
The Lions will go for their 11th victory and to improve their playoff positioning, perhaps to draw the NFC East winner, on Jan. 1 against Green Bay, who they haven’t beaten on the road since 1991.
The Chargers needed to extend their winning streak to four games to keep their postseason hopes alive, but the loss and Cincinnati’s victory dashed them.
Eric Weddle recovered an onside kick after San Diego finally scored in the third quarter, but the Chargers stalled inside the Lions 5. Cornerback Chris Houston broke up a pass in the end zone and the Chargers had to settle for Nick Novak’s field goal and a 14-point deficit.
Detroit’s potent offense got the ball for the first time in the second half with 4:53 left in the third quarter and quickly gained 48 yards on passes to Nate Burleson and Johnson. Smith had a 4-yard run for a 6-yard TD and a 31-10 lead.
The Chargers then drove to the Detroit 2 and turned over the ball on downs, firing up its sideline and the fans who have been waiting a long time for a season like this one. It’s the first time the Lions made the playoffs since Ford Field opened in 2002.
Rivers was 28 of 53 for 299 yards with a too-late TD and two interceptions, the second of which defensive end Cliff Avril snagged with his right hand and returned 4 yards to make it 38-10 late in the game.
Antonio Gates had four receptions to give him 588 in his career, breaking the Chargers record of 586 set by Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner.
Detroit got off to a good start, lobbing a pass into double coverage to Johnson for a 46-yard gain on the first snap and converting a third down for a TD.
Stafford found Pettigrew open in the end zone for a 7-yard throw, taking advantage of the Chargers assigning two defensive backs to Johnson on the same side of the field.
San Diego, meanwhile, didn’t score on its opening possession for the first time in eight games and finished with just 10 points – not nearly enough to keep up with the Stafford-led Lions.