You know what they say about New York: make it there, make it anywhere. The Lions are about to test that theory.
If they should beat the Giants on Sunday, across the river in the Meadowlands, the national media and “expert” analysts will have to take them seriously.
Until now, they have not.
Until now, despite winning five in a row and eight of their past nine, few seem to give the Lions a real chance at postseason success. The attitude seems to be “decent team, wins close ones they could have lost, loses some they should have won, will fold in the end.”
Wherever I travel, even to ESPN, the question I get constantly is, “Are the Lions any good?” That’s something a 9-4 record should have answered, right?
But the consensus seems to be Detroit will drop its last three games – against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers – and finish, as it often does, just outside the playoffs. And let’s be honest. There are plenty back home who think this, too.
Which is what makes Sunday so crucial.
“Every week is like that,” Matthew Stafford has told me multiple times this season. The quarterback and team’s most vital player, now in his eighth year, has come to view every Sunday as a potential win but a possible loss with big implications no matter the opponent.
He’s right. Consider where the Lions would be if they hadn’t lost just one winnable home game to Tennessee: 10-3, a postseason all but wrapped up. Instead, the playoffs hang in the balance of the last three weeks – the hardest games of the year.
Critics have a point
Now, it’s worth considering the critics’ point of view. They see a Lions team with no running game, a middle-of-the-road-ranked defense, no big stars outside of Stafford, and a record fattened with victories over only three teams with current winning records (the Vikings, 7-6; Titans, 7-6; and Redskins, 7-5-1).
Meanwhile, a number of Detroit’s rivals for postseason slots – Green Bay, Seattle, the Giants – are viewed differently. For one thing, they’ve all won Super Bowls in the past six seasons. Hard to fight that. Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning have been Super Bowl MVPs, and Russell Wilson is in the conversation for MVP of the league.
They have pedigrees. They also have big wins this season.
The Giants, with the same record as the Lions, have beaten the mighty Cowboys twice – the only team in the NFL to defeat them. Never mind they’ve also lost to the Redskins and Vikings, teams the Lions beat. The Dallas wins are like pixie dust.
The Packers, despite being two games behind Detroit, have trounced the Seahawks and edged the Giants, and, oh yeah, already have beaten the Lions once. And people tend to believe in Rodgers even when he’s not going well.
The Seahawks? Well, you’d think losing to the lowly Rams and scoring just five points in a loss to Tampa Bay might dampen enthusiasm. But they did beat the Patriots this year. And, more importantly, they’ve already clinched a playoff spot, thanks to a weak division. So, even if they finish with a lesser record than the Lions, they’re in.
Time to prove they belong
Meanwhile, Jim Caldwell’s death-defying squad must prove itself on the toughest of playing grounds. Winning in the Meadowlands is never easy, and expected rain and typical wind could be devilish to Stafford’s passing game, already hampered by his injured finger. It would be nice if the Lions had a running back who could chomp off yardage and chew the clock. No such luck.
And then comes Dallas, and that monstrosity of a stadium, on a Monday night. And, then, oh yeah, a home finish with the all-too-familiar Packers, who, let’s face it, if the division is on the line, will be favored against Detroit on history alone.
If you ask me, Sunday is it. The Lions don’t want bad karma to build up. They don’t want the pressure of a possible collapse as they head toward New Year’s Day. A win Sunday gives them oxygen. A win Sunday, and the playoffs are really close.
And, honestly, it could be their best shot. The Giants can’t run, either. They’re not scoring a lot. They commit turnovers. And they play tight games, like the Lions. But they have a track record of shutting down teams in the closing minutes, which, unfortunately, is where too many Detroit games have been won.
Make it here, make it anywhere. Or as a famous comedian used to say, “You want front row? You got front row.” The football world Sunday is, undeniably, paying full attention to our Lions. Let’s see what they do with it.