Playoffs? For the Lions, a win will do it

The last time the Detroit Lions were this close to 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 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), Monday night

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), Sunday night

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.

Jacksonville (4-10) 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.