They’re not quite there, but Calvin Johnson can “definitely see it” on the horizon.
The Detroit Lions are that close to reaching the playoffs.
The same Detroit Lions that were simply playing for pride — and failing — at this time three years ago en route to the NFL’s only 0-16 record. The same Detroit Lions who would be headed toward their 12th consecutive season without a postseason appearance if not for resiliency that may even trump that of Tim Tebow.
All the Lions (9-5) must do is win one of their final two games — either Saturday against visiting San Diego or January 1 at the Green Bay Packers, who will likely be resting starters now that a perfect record is no longer attainable following Sunday’s upset loss to Kansas City.
It’s that simple for Detroit after Sunday’s improbable 28-27 road victory over the Oakland Raiders.
For the fourth time in 2011, the Lions won when they had no business doing so. Oakland (7-7) led 27-14 midway through the fourth quarter. After a Detroit TD and an Oakland three-and-out, all the Raiders needed to bolster their own playoff hopes was to prevent the Lions from driving 98 yards for a touchdown with 2:14 remaining and no timeouts left.
Sounds easy enough, but Detroit never panicked. Such is the benefit of having overcome deficits of 17 or more points on three prior occasions.
“I like to think we all knew we were going to go out there and do it,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said with a smile on his face. “We’re a confident bunch. We know each other and what we can do. We knew it was going to take a chunk (of yardage) here or a play there, but we’ve got the players to do it.”
Topping that list are Stafford and Johnson. What is arguably the NFL’s best quarterback-wide receiver combination had worked its magic earlier in the game — Johnson scored on a 51-yard catch late in the first quarter — but was truly astonishing when the Lions needed the duo most.
With 1:38 remaining, Johnson made a tippy-toe sideline catch for 21 yards to the Detroit 39-yard line. As the NFL replay official reviewed the grab, Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had time to send in the play that spelled the difference.
Stafford acknowledged Detroit “couldn’t have dinked and dunked it down the field with no timeouts,” so Johnson was sent deep into the teeth of a Raiders zone defense designed to prevent long gains. Second-year backup safety Jerome Boyd took a horrible angle when charging toward Johnson, freeing the Lions wideout to grab a 48-yard lob that Stafford described as more of a punt than throw.
Johnson wasn’t done living up to his Megatron nickname. He drew a 17-yard pass interference penalty when the Lions were facing first-and-20 at the Oakland 23. Johnson then tormented Stanford Routt again two plays later, maneuvering inside the cornerback to snare the game-winning, six-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds left.
“Calvin just did a great job of slipping the guy and getting by him,” Stafford said. “[Raiders linebacker Rolando] McClain was playing the hole and I had to put it over his head. I didn’t get to see (Johnson’s) feet in the back of the end zone. I just put it to a spot where I thought he may be able to catch it.”
That’s one of the luxuries Stafford has playing with a receiver the caliber of Johnson, who finished with nine receptions for a career-high 214 yards. A beaming Johnson laughed afterward when proclaiming he had never broken the 200-yard mark at any level.
“It’s ridiculous,” Johnson said. “That’s all I can say.”
The standout campaigns being enjoyed by Stafford and Johnson were being overshadowed recently by the roughhousing antics of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who returned Sunday after serving a two-game suspension for stomping on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Suh was a non-factor on defense Sunday with almost as many penalties (one) as tackles (two), but he made the play that sealed the victory. Suh blocked Sebastian Janikowski’s 65-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
“It hit my thumb and I looked back and saw it twirling,” said Suh, who also revealed that he has called Dietrich-Smith to apologize for his Thanksgiving Day transgression. “That’s when you see me run off and I take my helmet off. Obviously, it was a great moment. I’m usually not that excited about things, but it’s what you play the game for.”
And here’s the best part for the Lions: Barring a collapse, they’ll be playing in the postseason for the first time since 1999.