Head scratcher: Will Lions make playoffs despite themselves?

Nate Burleson isn't the only one scratching his head about what makes the Lions tick.

Tim Fuller/Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

One of the facts of the NFL: the Lions are irrelevant in winter.

This is a franchise that has made the playoffs once since 2000, in 2011, when it lost to the Saints in the wild-card round. In one other season did the team have a winning record.

In another, 2008, they won zero games; in fact, that season, as they hurtled toward a futility record, may have been the Lions at their most relevant. A close observer of the league has learned that once it gets cold, the Lions aren’t worth thinking about.

That was supposed to change in 2013. With Matt Stafford locked in to a new contract at quarterback and Calvin Johnson playing as well at receiver as any human has, and Ndamukong Suh anchoring a defense that, for once, wasn’t terrible, the Lions actually had a ceiling they could aspire to hit.

Then they started 6-3. Everything was happening. Detroit had a football team. The plan had worked. The acid flashbacks to the Matt Millen era — all those receivers! — were finally decreasing in frequency, although they’ll never totally go away.  Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers was hurt. Jay Cutler was hurt. The Vikings were terrible. The NFC North had essentially given itself up to the Lions; it seemed to be willing them to success.

We know that Detroit lost four of its next five, of course, culminating with Monday night’s atrocious defeat at the hands of the feckless Baltimore Ravens, a game that saw multiple drops by Johnson and the Ravens winning on the strength of six field goals and zero touchdowns, which seems like it shouldn’t be allowed. But if we didn’t know it, it would feel like a joke. The Lions, primed for success, talented for once, lost four out of five? To the Steelers and the Bucs and the Eagles and the Ravens? Are they cursed?

Curses are stupid. There are no curses in sports. There’s only underachievement, and the constant stain of ownership or managers or players who aren’t good enough to accomplish what they’re being tasked with accomplishing.

The Lions paid Stafford elite-quarterback money, some $18 million a year. He’s not an elite quarterback. He’s a solid quarterback who throws the ball to the best receiver in the league, but when he isn’t throwing it to the best receiver in the league, throws a high number of interceptions — 17 this season, behind only Geno Smith and Eli Manning — and doesn’t boast exceptional efficiency numbers: his 7.5 yards per attempt is good for 10th in the league. Stafford’s a 10th-in-the-league type of quarterback.

Meanwhile, Johnson continues to be great. Reggie Bush is averaging nearly five yards per carry and four receptions per game. The Lions’ offense has weapons. And yet, here we are. Detroit could potentially still make the playoffs, as a matter of fact: the end of the season is going to be strange as far as the NFC North is concerned, with all three teams engaged in the hunt for the title, and the Packers and Bears dependent on quarterbacks recently or still-not-yet returned from injury.

The Lions have, fortunately, won when it counted: they hold the tiebreaker over the Bears, having beaten them twice, and they’re 1-1 against the Packers. But chances are, they’ll need to win out to make the postseason. And the irony: again, the situation seems perfect for the Lions. Only the Vikings and Giants are left on their schedule, two of the NFL’s worst teams. If the Lions can get to 9-7, and the Bears beat the Packers, they’re in.

This is Detroit’s year. Even after a cataclysmic collapse, there’s room left for them to redeem themselves. If we want to talk about curses, than the Lions have the opposite in play this year: everything is set up for them to succeed, that somehow, even at this late juncture in the season, even after the number of times they’ve already failed this season, they can still somehow make the playoffs. (The beauty of the playoffs in the NFL being that any team that makes it has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl: just ask the Ravens from last year.)

If they don’t make it: well, I’m not going to say curse, or a culture of losing, but that is a bummer.