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 general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz, and a win over San Diego today 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 it beats New Orleans on Monday night.
The holiday weekend began with the Indianapolis Colts knocking off the Houston Texans 19-16 on Thursday night.
Other games today 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 today, it’s Miami at New England, which has its sights set on the AFC’s top seed.
Green Bay, which can wrap up the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win, plays host to Chicago on Christmas night.