Don Banks: Lions' return to playoffs validates Schwartz; more Snaps - Sports Illustrated

Lions' return to playoffs validates Schwartz; more Snaps

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• When Jim Schwartz first arrived in Detroit in early 2009, on the heels of 0-16 and infamy in 2008, the team's rookie head coach talked early and often about changing the culture of losing that had existed for so long there, and making the Lions a legitimate NFL team, instead of the league's favorite punchline.

To be sure, the culture in Detroit has changed -- in more ways than one -- and on Saturday that reality became undeniable in resounding fashion: The Lions are back in the NFL playoffs again, for the first time since 1999. Their 38-10 rout of visiting San Diego earned them an NFC wild-card berth, a 10-win season, and perhaps launches the best era of Lions football since the 1950s.

Fittingly, it was quarterback Matthew Stafford who led Detroit on this day, completing 29 of 36 passes, for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Stafford, the very first draft pick of the Schwartz era, has stayed healthy this season and turned himself into the franchise quarterback the Lions believed they were getting when they took him first overall in 2009.

Stafford came complete with all those echoes of Bobby Layne -- they went to the same high school in Dallas -- the last great Lions quarterback. But now he has made a name for himself in Detroit, becoming the team's unquestioned offensive leader and a dependable clutch performer.

Schwartz and his Lions have hit their speed bumps this season without a doubt. They've been fighting for respect and legitimacy so fiercely at times that their intensity has gotten the best of them (see handshake-gate with Jim Harbaugh, and Suh, Ndamukong). But Schwartz wanted to build a team that engendered respect from its opponents, and would never back down from a challenge. He has succeeded on both fronts, and the proof is in the playoffs.

The Lions are pushovers no more. The stench of 0-16 has been erased, and the lovable losers tag removed and banished from the premises. It was seen as the most difficult turnaround project in the NFL, but Schwartz has made Detroit relevant and resurgent in 2011.

Though they won't admit it, what comes next this season is mostly gravy. Maybe having thrown off the chains of their defeatist attitude and legacy, the Lions are ready to make some noise in the NFC playoffs. But even if they don't, they've changed the game in Motown. The bar of expectation has been set higher. The Lions can win after all, and the Lions did win.

It wasn't always pretty, and it definitely wasn't the easiest of roads. But Detroit is back. So much has changed in such a short time. But it's clear now that the Lions have the right coach, the right quarterback, and the right blend of hunger and first-hand experience.

They are losers no more.

• As it turns out, talk is cheap. But then, observant Jets fans probably knew that by now.

Just to recap, for three years running now, Rex Ryan's big words and brash style have been his calling card. But when are the Jets ever going to start backing it up? To this point, Ryan's ever-present confidence has yet to inspire his Jets to prove they're the best team in the NFL, or the AFC East, or as of Saturday afternoon, even the city of New York.

When this week's war of words in Gotham finally gave way to a football game at MetLife Stadium, it was the "visiting'' Giants who got the last laugh, scoring 20 unanswered points in the middle of the game to beat the Jets 29-14 and severely damage the Jets' wild-card playoff hopes.

All you need to know is that with the Jets and Giants both fighting for their playoff lives, it was Ryan's team that went 11 consecutive series without scoring, and then choked in the fourth quarter, with quarterback Mark Sanchez throwing a head-scratching interception, losing a killer fumble at the Giants 1, and taking what amounted to a game-clinching safety when he was sacked in his own end zone.

You have to wonder where Ryan is going to get his next blast of bravado now? He has turned into the "Coach Who Cries Wolf,'' with his words ringing more and more hollow all the time. His Jets are 8-7, just tumbled out of the AFC's No. 6 playoff seed, and now must hope to win next week at formidable Miami while Cincinnati (9-6) is losing at home to Baltimore (11-4) to have a chance to get back into the postseason for the third consecutive season. The Jets are also tied with the likes of Oakland and Tennessee (both 8-7) in the AFC wild-card chase, and those teams might have something to say about New York going any further as well.

The Jets aren't done, but with two straight losses -- their third losing streak of at least that long this season -- they're in danger of coming up empty at the time of year they're supposed to be playing their best football. I can't wait to hear what they have to say this week.

• The Giants (8-7) hardly dominated their game against the Jets. They did next to nothing in the first half, but somehow still led 10-7 at the break on the strength of Victor Cruz's league-record-tying 99-yard touchdown catch and run with 2:12 left in the half. Yep, that same Victor Cruz who was belittled by Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie as a non-Pro Bowler this week, as were all of the Giants receivers.

News flash: I think Cruz is going to the Pro Bowl now, Mr. Cromartie. Cruz finished with 3 catches for 164 yards and that touchdown against the Jets' vaunted secondary, breaking Amani Toomer's 2002 single-season team record of 1,343 yards receiving (Cruz has 1,358 with one game to go). And did we mention that Cruz's touchdown was the longest play in team history? Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in 2010, didn't catch a pass as a rookie, and wasn't counted on for much of anything at the start of this season.

If we've learned anything this season, it's that the Giants win when they're expected to lose, and lose when they're expected to win. Naturally, the most inconsistent team in the NFL followed their script and now we get a winner-take-all showdown next week for the NFC East title at MetLife Stadium: Dallas (8-7) at New York, with the winner earning the NFC's No. 4 seed and a first-round home playoff game. In this underwhelming division, it probably couldn't have ended any other way this season.

• I don't know about you, but I think it's kind of cool that the Raiders and Chiefs went to overtime in Kansas City on Saturday, almost 40 years to the day since the Dolphins-Chiefs classic double-overtime AFC divisional playoff game on Christmas Day 1971. That game, which I wrote about this week, was the longest ever in NFL history, lasting 82:40, before Miami won it 27-24 on Garo Yepremian's 37-yard field goal about midway through the second overtime.

But I guess if you're a Chiefs fan you could have done without the coincidence, given that Kansas City lost this one, too, and saw their playoff hopes ended.

• Speaking of games that had to happen, next week's Kansas City at Denver drama had to be in the cards all along, or at least since Tim Tebow beat out Kyle Orton and became the Broncos starting quarterback in Week 7. Now Orton, who was later released, gets his shot at revenge: A chance to knock Tebow and the Broncos out of the playoffs with a Week 17 upset at Sports Authority Field in Denver.

You can't make this stuff up.

• Tebow's critics will be out in full force after the Broncos' 40-14 egg-laying at Buffalo, and it's somewhat understandable. Tebow has done a great job of not turning the ball over this season, but he threw the first four road interceptions of his career against the Bills, with two of them being returned for touchdowns 19 seconds apart in the fourth quarter. He finished just 13 of 30, for 185 yards, with one touchdown and those four picks.

After winning six games in a row, the Broncos have now lost their past two games by a combined 44 points. And you can't say this qualified as a moral victory, like last week's home loss to New England, the AFC's current top playoff seed. The Bills (6-9) came in with a seven-game losing streak and had looked like a team that started to mail it in in recent weeks.

The Denver defense didn't actually play as badly as the score would indicate, given that Buffalo scored twice on defense and once on Leodis McKelvin's 80-yard punt return. But still, you can't absolve the Broncos defense for surrendering 351 yards of offense, and letting Buffalo run for 160 yards against them, at 5.7 yards per carry. Where has that Bills offense been for the past two months? It took him almost two full years to accomplish it, but 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller rushed for his first 100-yard game, with 111 on 16 carries.

The Broncos better re-locate a little Tebow late-game magic, and some defense, next week against the Chiefs, or it's going to a very bitter ending to the fairy tale this season in Denver.

• For a while there on Saturday, when New England was trailing visiting Miami 17-0 at the half, I was starting to wonder if anybody really wants the AFC's top seed? The Patriots looked headed for a rare loss at home in December, Houston has suddenly has lost two in a row, while both Pittsburgh and Baltimore got beat handily on the West Coast in Week 15. Those are your top four contenders for the AFC's No. 1 seed, and everybody looked headed in reverse to some degree.

But the Patriots (12-3) steadied themselves in impressive fashion and rallied to beat the Dolphins 27-24, clinching a first-round bye in the procees. With a win next week at home against Buffalo, New England's eighth in a row to end the regular season, the Patriots would lock up the No. 1 seed and AFC homefield advantage.

New England proved again it's a mentally tough team, unlike their chief AFC East rivals, the wilting Jets. Tom Brady started horribly against the Dolphins, at one point being 3 of 13 for 37 yards in the first half. But when the smoke cleared, Brady was 27 of 46 for 304 yards, with one touchdown pass and two rushing scores. Brady set a new single-season career high for passing yards (4,897), and Wes Welker re-emerged in a big way, with 12 catches for 138 yards, and a new franchise mark for receiving yards in a season (1,518).

I know the Patriots have been knocked out of the playoffs after losing at home in the postseason openers the past two years, but I still think New England, with its defensive liabilities, becomes the clear-cut AFC Super Bowl favorite if it gets to play twice at Gillette Stadium in January.

• It's a good thing Raiders head coach Hue Jackson has stressed to his team recently the importance of staying away from penalties. Oakland had another 15 of the yellow flags for minus-92 yards in their overtime win at Kansas City, and the Raiders just don't believe in making things easy on themselves.

Oakland squeaked out the win at Arrowhead, but they did so despite numerous miscues and two more Carson Palmer interceptions. Palmer has 15 picks in his nine games as a Raider, although he did make the play of the game with a picture-perfect 53-yard bomb to Darrius Heyward-Bey on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, setting up Sebastian Janikowski's game-winning 36-yard field goal.

The Raiders have struggled mightily since starting 4-2, but if they win at home against San Diego next week, and the Broncos lose at home to Kansas City, Jackson will have delivered a division championship to Oakland in his rookie season, and gotten the Raiders into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

• I'm not sure if that head-over-heels highlight reel touchdown catch by Cincinnati's Jerome Simpson against Arizona deserved a touchdown signal or a string of scores from the Olympic gymnastics judges. But I know he stuck the landing so well that not even the East German judge could short him on the score (yes, I know, a dated reference lost on younger readers).

• Even if the Bengals don't wind up going to the playoffs, at the start of the season, who in their right mind thought they would be playing at home in Week 17 for the chance to clinch a wild-card berth? Not me. I picked them to be the worst team in the NFL this preseason. It's a remarkable job turned in by head coach Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

If Zimmer and Gruden aren't among the league coordinators given strong consideration and interviewed for vacant head coaching jobs, someone hasn't been paying attention this year.

• Denver's Willis McGahee accomplished a pretty cool feat on Saturday, surpassing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth time in his career, but with his third different team. McGahee did it twice with Buffalo and once with Baltimore, and only Ricky Watters has matched that record in NFL history (with Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle).

A lot of people thought McGahee was basically done, but he has proven folks wrong this year in Denver, and been a big part of the Broncos' journey from worst to first. Baltimore didn't resign McGahee this offseason, instead picking up Ricky Williams, who the Ravens thought had more left in the tank. But that wasn't the case at all.

And can it be possible that McGahee became the Broncos' first 1,000-yard rusher since Tatum Bell in 2006? Five years between 1,000-yard rushers in Denver? That's unheard for a franchise that used to churn them out like an assembly line.

• I'm hardly the first one to make this point, but look out for the Panthers next season. They're going to be a handful for the Saints and Falcons to contend with in the NFC South. What a textbook job rookie head coach Ron Rivera has done turning around the Panthers' fortunes in his first year.

Of course, a talented young franchise quarterback makes all the difference. And give it up for Carolina having the guts to take Cam Newton first overall last April. All Newton did was break Peyton Manning's 1998 rookie passing yardage record, set the league mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14), and account for 34 touchdowns overall this season via the pass or the run.

Newton and the Panthers destroyed the Bucs at home on Saturday, 48-16, with the rookie throwing for three touchdowns and scoring on a remarkable 49-yard run. He also found time to hit receiver Brandon LaFell on a team-record 91-yard scoring pass.

• If the Bucs are trying to get head coach Raheem Morris fired, they're doing a masterful job of it. Tampa Bay has now lost nine in a row since being 4-2, and every loss seems more uninspired than the one before it.

• Seasons come and seasons go in Cleveland, but one thing remains constant: Josh Cribbs is the only offensive weapon the Browns have. Cribbs had a career-high 84-yard punt return touchdown to get the Browns on the board at Baltimore, but Cleveland lost 20-14, dropping to 4-11.

But thanks for finally showing up Peyton Hillis. Better late than never. Cleveland's cover-boy running back had his first 100-yard game of the season, with 112 yards on 24 carries.

• Call me a blatant sentimentalist come the holidays, but who else was thrilled to see Vikings rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph score a touchdown on Christmas Eve?