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.