This is the Detroit Lions’ new normal: Playing meaningful games in January (and beyond?)

Detroit Free Press

It will be six years Saturday since the Detroit Lions played their last true survive-and-advance game, when they got drilled by the Seattle Seahawks in a wild card tilt where they barely looked like they belonged.

Matthew Stafford started at quarterback for the Lions that game, Zach Zenner led the team in rushing and Russell Wilson still had food on his stove to cook thanks to former Central Michigan running back Thomas Rawls.

The Lions should get another win-and-in experience Sunday, barring a disrespectful move by NFL schedule-makers to put them in the late time slot knowing their playoff hopes already could be dashed, and two years into Dan Campbell’s tenure as head coach that’s exactly where this talented, young team belongs.

Winning in pro sports is a gradual process, a behavior learned over time. Rare is the team that rises to championship contender without scaling (and sometimes stumbling over) small steps along the way.

These Lions, with 21 rookie, first- or second-year players — nearly 40% of their entire team — on their 53-man roster will benefit from being in a playoff chase no matter what happens in their Week 18 game against the Green Bay Packers or in the Seattle Seahawks-Los Angeles Rams game that could precede it Sunday afternoon.

The Lions need a win over the Packers and a Seahawks loss to make the playoffs. The Packers can get in with a win, while the Seahawks would qualify for the postseason with a win and a Packers loss.

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The NFL will finalize its Week 18 schedule Monday night. The Lions and Packers could play in the 4 p.m. window or be the lone Sunday night game, after the Seahawks-Rams game already has been decided.

“This is what you want them to taste,” Campbell told reporters after his team’s 41-10 shellacking of the Chicago Bears. “They need to feel this. They need to understand what this is because this has got to become the norm. This has to become the norm, and then once you get — you start to understand this, then it becomes you’re playing for the division, you’re playing for where your seeding is going to be. That’s coming. But right now, to get a taste of all this right now and be in the hunt, be in the run, I think is huge for our guys.”

Campbell is right, both that the Lions stand to benefit from this late-season surge that has them in the thick of the playoff race and that more important January games are coming — likely soon.

The Lions have just one player on their roster who played in that 2016 wild card game: left tackle Taylor Decker, who was a rookie at the time. Another player from that team, Don Muhlbach, is in his second season as a Lions assistant coach. A third, Anquan Boldin, already is a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When the Lions made the playoffs in 2016, they backed their way into the postseason losing their final three games. Stafford suffered a late-season finger injury that decimated the offense and the Lions’ decrepit defense was in need of a major overhaul.

The best thing about this year’s run is how sustainable the Lions’ success feels.

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The Lions are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning four of their past five games and seven of nine, a streak just two NFC teams can match since the start of November. The San Francisco 49ers have won nine straight and are in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and the Dallas Cowboys have won eight of their past 10 games.

With a healthy Jalen Hurts, the Philadelphia Eagles still are the team to beat in the NFC, and the Lions could be marching into a deathtrap of a game against the 49ers if they make the playoffs.

But they’ve proven the second half of the season they can play with anyone in football, and their playoff hopes are not simply a creation of the NFL’s recently expanded postseason.

Jared Goff has played Pro Bowl-caliber football since mid-November. He has not thrown an interception in 290 pass attempts, the longest streak in the NFL, and he’s protected by one of the two best offensive lines in the league.

Defensively, the Lions have a budding group of playmakers who, save for last week’s slip-up against the Carolina Panthers, have looked ready for prime time. Rookie defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson, James Houston and Josh Paschal combined for 5.5 sacks, one fumble and one interception against the Bears, just the fourth time in NFL history rookie teammates have each recorded multiple sacks in a game.

The Lions are an ascending team with a bright future, as fleeting as those things can be in the NFL. And the way they rebounded from their Panthers defeat is a testament to Campbell’s coaching and his players’ belief in their boss.

There’s no shame in needing help to make the playoffs in Week 18, not coming off a 3-13-1 season and not after this year’s 1-6 start. And there will be no shame if the Lions fall short of a wild card berth.

They’ve done enough to reset expectations going forward, to give everyone, including themselves, a taste of what the new normal should be from here on out.

“We’re going to have a few more home games here down the road in January,” Campbell said Sunday. “But as far as where we’re at right now, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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