Only a collapse in the final two weeks of the regular season could make it difficult for the Detroit Lions to capture their first playoff berth since the 1999 campaign.
The Lions would already own a wild card spot if the season lasted 14 games, but there are still two weeks left and the conclusion of the season begins Saturday versus the playoff-desperate San Diego Chargers at Ford Field.
Detroit is currently one of a handful of teams vying for one of the final postseason berths since the NFC North has already been locked up by the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. It has won two straight and three of five games, including Sunday's exciting finish to a 28-27 victory over the Oakland Raiders out west. Peering down a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford engineered a pair of drives to put his team ahead for good.
Stafford moved the Lions closer with a three-yard touchdown pass to Titus Young with 4:59 to go in the game and after the defense did its job, he hooked up with Calvin Johnson on a six-yard scoring strike to put Detroit ahead for good. All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who returned from a two-game suspension for his antics in a Thanksgiving loss to Green Bay, then blocked Sebastian Janikowski's 65-yard field goal attempt on the final play.
The Lions need to win one of their last two games to clinch a playoff spot and can still grab the conference's No. 5 seed with a little help.
"We're not going to practice different this week," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said. "We're going to keep doing the same things that have made us successful. I think that is the big thing."
Scoring points has put the Lions back on the map and ahead of most of the teams gunning to extend the season. Atlanta and Detroit both have nine wins, while there are four other NFC teams with identical 7-7 records. Taking care of business is key for the Lions since relying on other teams for help usually doesn't work out for the better. Detroit closes its season at Green Bay.
San Diego is hanging on to its playoff hopes by a thread and so goes the same for head coach Norv Turner and his job status.
The Chargers are still alive in both the AFC West and wild card standings with a 7-7 mark, and recorded their third win in a row with Sunday's convincing 34-14 victory versus the Baltimore Ravens at home. San Diego's season high- tying three-game winning streak comes on the heels of a six-game slide.
In the 20-point victory over the Ravens, Philip Rivers did not throw an interception for a fourth straight game and completed 17-of-23 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown pass. Rivers hit seven different targets and running back Ryan Mathews carried the workload with 90 yards and a pair of touchdown runs on a season-high 26 carries. While the offense racked up 415 yards of offense, it was San Diego's defense that controlled the tempo.
"If you don't turn the ball over and you create turnovers, then you're going to be ahead of the game," Turner said postgame.
Turner's team is facing a short week for the fourth time in less than two months and will close out the regular season at Oakland. The Chargers are tied with the Raiders for second in the AFC West -- one game behind Denver -- and are one of several teams vying for the final playoff spot in the conference. A loss on Saturday to Detroit would definitely spoil any chances of San Diego reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six years. Winning out and the Broncos losing out would sew up the fifth AFC West title in six seasons.
The Chargers and Lions have faced off nine times previously, with San Diego taking the last six meetings between the teams after losing the first three matchups in the set. Detroit hasn't defeated the Chargers in 33 years, with its last victory over the Bolts a 31-14 home triumph all the way back on Oct. 22, 1978. The Chargers have won twice in the Motor City during their series streak, a 20-10 decision at the Silverdome in 1999 and a 14-7 verdict at Ford Field in 2003, and also destroyed the Lions in a 51-14 laugher held in San Diego during the 2007 season.
Turner is 4-2 against Detroit during his head coaching career, owning a 1-0 record with the Chargers and a 3-2 mark while at the helm of the Washington Redskins from 1994-2000 that includes a win over the Lions in a 1999 NFC Divisional Playoff. Schwartz will be taking on both San Diego and Turner for the first time as a man in charge.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Rivers (4,015 yards, 23 TD, 17 INT) has thrown seven touchdown passes to no interceptions during the three-game winning streak and hasn't thrown an interception in four games after throwing 17 in the first 10 games. He had his third straight rating of 100 or better against the Ravens and helped San Diego score on its first five possessions. The Chargers never trailed in the game and didn't have to punt either. The offense scored four touchdowns and attempted three field goals before turning the ball over on downs inside the two-minute warning. Mathews (1,033 yards, 6 TD) had 90 yards and two scores and entered the game with three consecutive 100-yard performances. He set the offense in motion and kept Baltimore's defense on its heels with 109 yards of total offense. The offensive line helped pave the way for Mathews and didn't allow a sack for the second time in three weeks. Malcom Floyd (634 yards, 3 TD) had 96 yards and a touchdown on five receptions and is averaging 85 yards receiving in his last four games. He missed four games from Nov. 6-Nov. 27 because of injury. San Diego has scored 30-plus points in three straight games and Vincent Jackson (1,036 yards, 8 TD) eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark.
If the Lions had issues controlling Oakland's offense, then Saturday's contest could pose as a problem. The Lions allowed 477 yards of offense, a number the Chargers could muster in three quarters, and could have been done in by Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who passed for 367 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Michael Bush ran for 77 yards on 18 carries against the Lions, who managed to sack Palmer three times. Defensive end Cliff Avril (36 tackles, 11 sacks) added to his team-leading sack total with a pair and veteran DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (31 tackles, 8 sacks) had the other sack. Detroit must keep Rivers hot under the collar Saturday with a playoff berth on the line and could use a few interceptions from its secondary. Cornerbacks Eric Wright (63 tackles) and Chris Houston (49 tackles) share the team lead in picks with four, while strong safety Amari Spievey (62 tackles, sack) has three INTs. Suh (33 tackles, 3 sacks) will be in charge of stuffing the lanes for Mathews and will be aided by fellow DT Corey Williams (29 tackles, 2 sacks). Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (97 tackles, 3 sacks) had a team-best 10 stops in Oakland.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
The Lions were pleased to see Johnson (1,335 yards, 14 TD) get back into the groove Sunday with nine catches for a career-best 214 yards and two TDs. He entered the game with only one touchdown reception in his last five games and set a personal best with his 14th TD catch of the season late in the game. Johnson, whose 51-yard touchdown catch evened the score at 7-7 early on, recorded the second-most receiving yards by a Detroit player, trailing Richard Johnson's 248 yards against New Orleans back in 1989. Johnson was only four at that time. He has recorded 19 career 100-yard games, passing Johnnie Morton for the second-most in team history. It was his sixth 100-yard effort of 2011. Someone has to get the ball to Johnson and that man is Stafford. Stafford (4,145 yards, 33 TD, 14 INT) is the second quarterback in Lions history with 30 touchdown passes in a season (Scott Mitchell, 32 in 1995) and completed 29 of his 52 attempts for 391 yards and four touchdown passes. He has thrown three or more TD passes in a game five times this season and has recorded a rating of 100 or better on eight separate occasions. Because of the Stafford- Johnson connection, the Lions are fourth in points scored, fifth in passing yards and ninth in total yards.
The Chargers defense better have their track suits ready for this matchup with the high-powered Lions. Baltimore is more of a smash-mouth type of football team and doesn't match the kind of intensity Detroit brings to the air. In order to diffuse Stafford, the Chargers will have to dial up the sacks once again. They had tacked on seven against the Ravens thanks to four from sack leader Barnes (38 tackles, 11 sacks), whose four QB takedowns were the most since Phillips (36 tackles, 4 sacks) against Arizona on Oct. 3, 2010. Barnes and Phillips both had six tackles in Sunday's win. Veteran cornerback Quentin Jammer (46 tackles) appeared in his 154th career NFL game Sunday, moving into a 10th-place tie for most games played in team history. Jammer and fellow cornerback Antoine Cason (45 tackles, INT) have their work cut out for them against Johnson and the Lions' pass attack. Safety Eric Weddle (77 tackles) will help out too and hopes to add to his team-leading interception total of seven. Covering Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew and the running backs over the middle could be an issue for the Chargers, who struggled to contain Ravens running back Ray Rice.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Lions running back Kevin Smith has 272 yards and three scores, and could be a factor on Saturday. Smith has fallen back to earth since his exciting debut, but the Chargers are just 21st against the run (126.1 ypg).
How long will Rivers' resurgence last? Rivers is facing a middle-of-the-pack secondary in Detroit and needs to be on point once again since another loss would make it difficult for San Diego to return to the playoffs. The fiery signal caller joined Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as the only QBs in league history to throw for 4,000 yards in at least four straight seasons.
Stafford can also chuck it with the best of them and would love to pass the Lions to victory and into the playoffs. He first must get past San Diego's sixth-rated pass defense, which is allowing just over 200 yards per game.
Two of the premier passers will be on center stage in the Motor City, and one of them will be going home with a frown. Rivers has had plenty to smile about these days in bringing his Chargers up from the rear in the AFC West and is not about to lose this one with a postseason spot at stake. Stafford and the Lions can punch their ticket to the playoffs by cooling off San Diego, but Rivers' arm is way too hot right now to simmer down. Expect another strong performance from Mathews on the ground in opening up the air attack for a pleasant ride home back to the Golden State.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 31, Lions 23