January 19, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Bob Wojnowski

NFC North rivals' playoff success proves Lions are close

The Lions, behind third-string quarterback Drew Stanton, beat Charles Woodson and the Packers at Ford Field this season. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)

At the risk of being branded a myopic, optimistic, misguided dummy, I offer a tempting tidbit to warm a cold winter day. Ready?

Only two NFL teams are currently on four-game winning streaks. One of them is Green Bay, mere days away from playing for the Super Bowl. The other is the Detroit Lions, a mere 11 years removed from their last playoff appearance.

Chew on that! OK, any true comparison between the championship-game participants — Packers, Bears, Jets and Steelers — and the Lions is nonsensical and needlessly taunting, which is precisely why I'm about to make it. Can you watch these games from your couch, wrapped in your Ndamukong Suh Snuggie, and reasonably expect the Lions to make a run at the playoffs as early as next season? Sure you can.

If the NFL has taught us anything in these playoffs, and if the Lions taught us anything the past half-century, it's that glitz doesn't last. Peyton Manning has a 9-10 playoff record. Barry Sanders had one playoff victory. New England contends with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but somehow forgot to keep its defense together.

The Lions under Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz get it. I truly believe that. Now, they have to go get more of it, more cornerbacks and linebackers, more and more defense, and that's the difficult part.

More than ever, this is what the NFL is about: Keeping your quarterback upright and knocking the other quarterback down.

The Lions haven't been able to keep Matthew Stafford upright, and they need him healthy to have a shot. But they can knock the quarterback down, which is the best place to start, which is where the Steelers, Jets, Bears and Packers start.

I'm not overreacting to the four-game winning streak that closed a 6-10 season. And no, I'm not chugging a beer every time I type the word "playoffs."

Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. (Belch).

Things change quickly

Three or four December victories guarantee nothing. But we finally can consider the playoffs a real goal for the Lions without chuckling until our midsections ache. Remember, their 7-3 victory over Green Bay came with third-stringer Drew Stanton at quarterback. You recall how they won that game? They knocked Aaron Rodgers out of it.

The Lions also were up 10 on the Jets in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime. The NFC North is brutally tough, but the Lions beat the Packers and Vikings, and unofficially beat the Bears, before Calvin Johnson's non-touchdown catch thrust "complete the process" into the NFL lexicon.

Chicago was a mess at the time, with Lovie Smith's job under scrutiny and Lions expatriates Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli looking glum and glummer. Fortunes turn quickly in this league, the Lions' history notwithstanding.

The Bears have a strong-armed, high-risk quarterback in Jay Cutler, but they're in the title game because they signed monster defensive end Julius Peppers. The Lions have a strong-armed, high-risk quarterback in Stafford, but they improved because they have a monster defensive line of Suh, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril.

The Lions finished with 44 sacks, sixth in the league. Imagine what they could do if they had good cornerbacks. Look at what the Jets did to the Patriots with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. No one ever got open, which is why Brady got pummeled.

Many were shocked the Patriots and Colts lost, but we shouldn't have been. New England had the NFL's 25th-rated defense and Indianapolis was 20th. For the record, the Lions improved from 109th (or thereabouts) to 21st.

The Steelers ranked second, the Jets third, the Packers fifth and the Bears ninth. Sometimes, trite is true, that defense trumps dynamism.

Defense needs help

Outside of Rodgers and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the stars of these playoffs are the defensive players, from the Packers' Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, to the Bears' Peppers and Brian Urlacher, to most of the Steelers' and Jets' units.

The Lions found some cornerback help — Alphonso Smith, Chris Houston — but they need a cornerback star. LSU's Patrick Peterson won't be available with the 13th pick, but another moderately unpronounceable Nebraska standout, Prince Amukamara, might be.

You can spend the offseason obsessing about Stafford's shoulders. Mayhew and Schwartz should spend the offseason obsessing about cornerbacks and linebackers.

As long as the NFL doesn't get pig-headed and lose the season by locking out the players — which I doubt — the Lions have a chance to go from mildly intriguing to legitimately relevant. They haven't completed the process, but at least they finally understand it.

Packers at Bears

What: NFC championship

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: Fox/WXYT 1270

Records: Packers 12-6, Bears 12-5

Line: Packers by 31/2

Jets at Steelers

What: AFC championship

When: 6:30 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: CBS/WXYT 1270

Records: Jets 13-5, Steelers 13-4

Line: Steelers by 31/2


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