They gathered in the lobby of their Allen Park practice facility, talking amongst themselves and passing time on their phones. Some came straight from practice, sweaty and still in uniform.
One by one, Detroit Lions players sat in front of a green screen Thursday to film their introductions for Sunday Night Football, and it wasn’t lost on a single one the timing of the moment.
This wasn’t training camp, when NBC production crews typically make the rounds to prepare for the primetime slate of games the network airs every fall. This was the final Thursday of the regular season, three days before the biggest game of the year.
“I call it motivation,” Lions center Frank Ragnow told the Free Press. “I mean, we’re doing our Sunday Night Football intros the week of. That’s pretty telling.”
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Telling in what everyone thought about the Lions entering the season, and telling in how far they’ve come.
Given zero primetime games by schedule makers last spring and written off for dead by almost everyone after a 1-6 start, the Lions were flexed into the final game of the season, Game No. 272, on Sunday night at historic Lambeau Field, where they just might be playing for a playoff spot.
The 8-8 Lions, winners of seven of their past nine games, need a win Sunday over the Green Bay Packers and help from the Los Angeles Rams in the form of a victory over the Seattle Seahawks to earn the NFC’s final wild card spot.
The Packers, 8-8 after their own rotten start, are in a win-and-in situation no matter what happens in the Rams-Seahawks’ 4:25 p.m. game.
The Seahawks (8-8) will make the playoffs with a win and a Packers loss.
“When everybody’s supposed to come here and do all that stuff at the beginning of the year like we always do, they’re like, ‘Nah,’” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “And I mean, that’s kind of how it felt for the first half of the season, too, for a lot of people, and from a lot of the media. Then we get hot and everybody’s jumping on it and I feel like it might have been, after we went on that three- or four-game streak and I was like, ‘Man, this is cool and all, but I know what the flip side of it is and I don’t want to go back to that.’
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“And I understand we didn’t have any of the primetime games and everything like that, but it’s like, ‘Well, what if we do now?’ Like, ‘You’re NBC.’ Guys are going in there after practice in their practice pants and sweating and just knocking it out real quick. It’s no big deal ultimately, but it’s just another one of those little jabs, for sure.”
The Lions have absorbed more body blows than they can count, not just this season but in the recent past.
Decker is the only player remaining from the Lions’ last playoff team in 2016, and most everyone else on the roster has only experienced losing in Detroit.
Before this season, the Lions had four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North. If they win Sunday, they will be above .500 for the first time since Week 5 of the 2019 season.
“I’m excited. Our guys are excited,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “These opportunities don’t always come around. I think you go through these things in life and you don’t always know what they’re going to be, but one day you’re going to look back and say, man, you had these special moments that you were able to be a part of. And I try to tell those guys, you just don’t know when those are going to come up or what it’s going to mean, but I know this: When you’re done playing, you miss the hell out of it. And this will be one of those moments I believe they’ll always remember, this group, this team.”
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That the Lions even have a chance to make the playoffs after their disastrous start is stunning. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals are the only team to go 1-6 and reach the postseason, and they did so as a division winner (at a time there was only one wild-card berth).
“It’s insane,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said.
The Lions survived a rash of early-season injuries that temporarily derailed their high-powered offense; they overhauled their young defense during their October bye to salvage a season that has put them ahead of the rebuilding curve.
Playoff hopes aside, Sunday’s game could be a snatch-the-torch moment for a franchise that’s spent the past three decades looking up at the Packers, first with Brett Favre and more recently with Aaron Rodgers, in the NFC North.
Rodgers, 39, has endured one of the worst seasons of his future Hall of Fame career. The two-time reigning NFL MVP has thrown his most interceptions since 2010, and his poor performance in a 15-9 loss at Ford Field in Week 9 — when he threw two picks on the goal line — helped spark the Lions’ turnaround.
The Lions, with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL and two first-round picks in April’s draft, seem built for the long haul. And playoff stakes aside, safety DeShon Elliott said Sunday’s game is hugely important for the organization because it will “set the identity for the following years and years to come.”
“If we’re being real, I mean this is a playoff game for us and that’s how we’re looking at it, that’s how we’ve got to approach it,” fullback Jason Cabinda said. “Obviously there’s a situation where we can win and we can still possibly not make it into the playoffs. But if that’s the case, it’s more so of like an either we’re winning or you’re not going, but we’re winning regardless. That’s kind of the mindset going on is that this is a must-win game, it’s a playoff game, it’s a game that we’re fighting to get in at the end of the day, so it’s the most important game, and that’s how we’re looking at it.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.
Next up: Packers
Matchup: Lions (8-8) at Green Bay (8-8), regular-season finale.
Kickoff: 8:20 p.m. Sunday; Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
TV/radio: NBC; WXYT-FM (97.1).
Line: Packers by 5.