Lions rejoice after clinching playoff spot

Forget next year’s draft. The Detroit Lions have something
different to look forward to this December.

The Lions are headed to the playoffs for the first time since
the 1999 season.

”This is an accomplishment,” coach Jim Schwartz said. ”It’s a
big step for our team and our organization.”

Detroit clinched a postseason berth with a resounding 38-10 win
over San Diego on Saturday, and now the Lions can sit back and
contemplate any number of possible first-round match-ups. There’s
one more regular-season game, at Green Bay next weekend, but
Detroit will be a wild card win or lose.

The Lions will be on the road for the first round – and probably
for as long as they’re still playing. But Detroit did get to
celebrate its playoff berth with a home win and a victory lap by
Schwartz and some players.

”Unless something really strange happens, it’s probably the
last home game that we’re going to play this year. So our crowd’s
made a big difference,” Schwartz said. ”We’ve said a lot about
how they don’t just go to the games, they participate in the games.
I’d like a few less waves when our offense has the ball when we’re
holding the lead and we don’t want to get any penalties, but our
crowd’s been great and they deserve to celebrate it and that’s why
we stayed out.”

Detroit won its first five games and is closing fast as well
with three straight victories. After beating the Vikings on a
last-second defensive stand and rallying from a 13-point,
fourth-quarter deficit at Oakland, the Lions beat San Diego in
drama-free fashion. Detroit led 24-0 at halftime. There was one
anxious moment in the third quarter when the Chargers scored a
touchdown and recovered an onside kick, but the Lions’ defense
allowed only three points the rest of the way.

For Detroit (10-5) to earn the No. 5 seed in the NFC, it needs
to finish with a better record than Atlanta (9-5), which plays at
New Orleans on Monday night. The Falcons beat the Lions this season
for the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Lions center Dominic Raiola, who has been with the team since
being drafted in 2001, was more interested in savoring Saturday’s
win than looking ahead to the next challenges.

”I’m just going to enjoy this one tonight – let it soak in,”
he said. ”This is awesome.”

Detroit’s offensive stars, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson,
were terrific as usual, and the line gave Stafford plenty of time
to throw. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew caught nine passes for 80
yards and a touchdown.

The defense was also much improved after struggling to hold off
Joe Webb and Carson Palmer in the previous two games. Defensive
back Chris Houston, who has been battling a left knee problem, was
particularly active.

”I knew what was at stake with this franchise wanting to get
into the playoffs,” Houston said. ”It’s December. Everybody’s
hurt. I had to go for my team. I tried to go last week but it
wasn’t all the way there, so I took myself out. … This game I was
feeling 100 percent, no thoughts of pulling myself out.”

Next weekend’s game at Green Bay could still be emotionally
charged. The Packers beat the Lions 27-15 on Thanksgiving Day in a
game remembered for Ndamukong Suh’s stomp at Green Bay offensive
lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. The Detroit defensive tackle was
suspended two games for the incident.

But no matter what happens, the Lions can go on the road knowing
their postseason spot is safe.

”Once you get to the playoffs, it’s anybody’s ballgame,”
defensive end Cliff Avril said. ”The city of Detroit needs it.
They’ve been waiting on us to win for a while. It’s such a football
town and we haven’t been winning, so it’s huge. We owe the fans
thanks for supporting us through the ups and downs. We’re there, so
just have to celebrate with them.”