Detroit Lions talking playoffs and feel like a dangerous team with potential

Detroit Free Press

Do me a favor. Go look outside. Are the leaves off the trees? Does it look chilly? Do some of your neighbors already have their Christmas decorations up?

Now do me one more favor. Got to the refrigerator and look at the calendar. Does it really say December?

Sorry for imposing, but I’m having a little trouble getting my bearings. You see, over in Allen Park the Detroit Lions are doing something they haven’t done for years. They’re talking about the playoffs. So you’ll have to forgive me if I wasn’t sure this was reality or a fever dream brought on by a tryptophan overdose from Thanksgiving leftovers, because we all know December in Detroit is usually reserved for draft talk.

Yet, here we are. The Lions are 4-7 and in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot, a mere three games behind 7-5 Washington, with only 6-5 Seattle and 5-7 Atlanta standing in their way of catching the Commanders.

And they’re talking about the playoffs, or at least playing meaningful games in December that give them a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

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“Yeah, it’s pretty cool, man,” center Frank Ragnow said Monday. “I don’t think I’ve experienced it, so it’s cool just to — it’s not over, right? Like we’re still in this thing and to be able to do that.”

Think about that for a moment. Ragnow is in his fifth year. He’s made the Pro Bowl and he’s one of the best centers in the NFL. And he’s never experienced more than six wins in a season.

I asked coach Dan Campbell on Wednesday if he reminds his players about the playoffs and how much is at stake in the final six games. Some coaches don’t mind emphasizing the obvious implications of the upcoming schedule, but most like to narrow their focus and prefer the most myopic of views. Put Campbell in the latter camp.

“I do not,” Campbell said. “I do not.”

Some coaches like to talk about keeping their noses to the grindstone. But I suspect Campbell has an actual grindstone in his office, worn down and covered in dried nose blood, and probably decorated with Metallica stickers and at least one “Ozzie rules!!!” scribble.

But Campbell doesn’t even have to remind his players about the playoffs, because if they’re anything like he was as a player, they’re surely thinking about it.

“Oh, you know they are,” he said. “You know they are. Absolutely, and yes I did.

“That’s always going to be in the back of your head because you’re — we’re all competitive, right? And that’s what the goal of all this is, always when you’re playing. I mean, it’s to be able to play in the big one and how do you do that? You’ve got to find a way to get into the playoffs, and so certainly that’s always going to be in the back of your head.”

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Or in the front of your head, if you’re Jared Goff, who didn’t shy away from the playoff talk.

“Yeah, it makes every game mean a little bit more,” he said. “You’re playing for something. We certainly have a lot of work to do to really put ourselves in there, but yeah, it’s one game at a time and we’ve got six left, and how many of those can we win to give ourselves the best chance?”

Goff may be the best example of who the Lions are right now and the heightened level of confidence with which they’re playing. He’s had a tough go of it the past three years and has come off understandably a bit downcast during the lowest times. But he was practically chipper Wednesday, standing at his locker, talking about Jameson Williams’ abundant speed and wanting ping-pong prowess.

Goff knows plenty about playoff hope and what it can do for a team’s morale. He’s been in six playoff games, which works out to a time period of about 30 years in Detroit if you use the Lions conversion calculator.

“Yeah, it changes everything,” he said. “Last year, you think about this time last year, and you’re kind of out of it. Just human nature. It’s hard to get going every day. It’s hard to get yourself ready to go, and Sundays, and even throughout the week, Wednesday through Friday. But now we’re in the mix.”

I don’t think the Lions will make the playoffs, even with a favorable schedule. They have too much ground to make up.

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However, the Lions feel like a playoff team. There’s a vibe about the team, a looseness but also a focused attitude. At least two prominent starters sat at their lockers Wednesday deeply engrossed in game film. They all know they’re playing better and Goff emphatically announced the team had turned a corner.

“So, yeah, we’re there,” he said, “and certainly a different team than we were early in the year and can play with anybody, can beat anybody.”

Taylor Decker has a locker next to Ragnow’s. The left tackle has made the playoffs once, when he was a rookie in 2016. He prefers a professional’s viewpoint, that you get paid to do a job, regardless of the circumstance. It’s that mindset that has made Decker a valuable and dependable player.

But yes, even he glances at the standings and thinks about the playoff picture a little.

“I just kind of peek at it real quick and kind of know where we’re at,” Decker said. “But I’m not going to look at tiebreakers, yeah, all that stuff. Yeah, it’s in the back of your head. I’m sure it’s in the back of coach’s head.”

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Then Decker let himself imagine something, even briefly, that no one around here has imagined for years.

“That’s the goal is try to make it in the playoffs,” he said. “And then I feel like every year a team makes it in the playoffs, and maybe they sneak in the wild-card and then all of a sudden they’re dangerous.”

Right now, that’s the Lions. Dangerous. You could see it during their three-game winning streak and in their narrow losses to four excellent teams that are at least tied for the lead in their respective divisions.

Lions. Playoffs. Dangerous. It’s hard to believe. Next thing you know, someone will tell me Americans are finally good at soccer.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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