ALLEN PARK, Mich. — In a league built on parity, also-rans can emerge rather rapidly into legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and vice versa.
Two years ago, the Detroit Lions finished 4-12 and the Arizona Cardinals 5-11.
But this coming Sunday, they’ll meet in Glendale, Ariz., with both teams seriously competing for the No. 1 seed overall in the NFC and the home-field advantage that goes with it.
The Lions’ surprising 7-2 record, their best start since 1993 when they won their last division title, has raised expectations considerably with seven weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Lions not only have a chance to make the playoffs for just the second time in 15 years, they actually could host a postseason game for the first time since 1991.
They’re also on track to post the most victories in franchise history, or at least tie that 12-4 record from ’91 when they reached the NFC championship game, the closest they’ve ever come to playing in a Super Bowl.
Believe it or not, if the Lions beat the 8-1 Cardinals, they will be no worse than tied for the best record in the entire NFL.
Let that sink in.
What’s more, the Cardinals will be without their starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Former Lion Drew Stanton, who played at Michigan State, will start in Palmer’s place.
With a four-game winning streak, the last three on comebacks in the final minutes, the Lions have emerged as one of the league’s feel-good stories in Jim Caldwell’s first year as coach.
Caldwell was asked Monday during his weekly news conference about the "playoff fever" that’s taking over in Detroit.
"We don’t have it," he said. "We’re wearing the white mask around here. We don’t have to worry about it."
Caldwell is determined to keep his players from looking too far ahead.
"We’ve been playing well," he said. "We’ve been playing tough. But this is a long season. It’s a journey and we’re still on that journey.
"We’ve got the team with the best record in the National Football League coming up. You better get focused on them quickly."
So what’s wrong with catching a little of that playoff fever?
"I don’t know because I’ve never done it," Caldwell said. "You might ask somebody who has. It hasn’t been me and it won’t be this team."
Caldwell is becoming adamant about this point, perhaps in part because he inherited a team that appeared to be playoff-bound a year ago at this time, when they led the NFC North with a 6-3 record, only to lose six of their final seven games to miss out on the postseason.
They’ve already won as many games as they did all last season, but the Green Bay Packers aren’t going away. The Packers (6-3) remain just a game behind the Lions in the division.
It’s quite possible this NFC North race, which includes a guaranteed home playoff game to the winner, if not an opening-round bye, could come down to the final week of the regular season when the Lions play in Green Bay.
Still not buying into the Lions? It’s understandable based on the history.
But consider this: The perception of the Seattle Seahawks wasn’t so good when they suffered through four straight losing seasons.
But the Seahawks broke through to win 11 games two years ago and then became Super Bowl champions last season.
There are other examples, too. The Cardinals went nine straight years without a winning record before getting to the Super Bowl during the 2008 season.
New Orleans was 7-9 and 8-8 the two seasons before its Super Bowl title five years ago.
And then there were the stunning St. Louis Rams, who went from 4-12 in 1998 to Super Bowl champs the following season.
So it’s happened before in the NFL and it can happen again, which probably means it’s time to start taking the Lions — yes, even the Detroit Lions — a little more seriously these days.