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Niyo: Caldwell reminds Lions talk is cheap

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — First, he had to earn their respect. But now that he has, Lions coach Jim Caldwell wants to be sure he has his team's undivided attention.

The playoffs? The NFC North division race?

"Pay no attention to it," he told his players in the locker room after a narrow victory over the Vikings at Ford Field pushed Detroit to the brink of a postseason spot.

When told later one of the veterans he'd just singled out for praise after the 16-14 victory — defensive end Jason Jones, who came up with a crucial fourth-quarter sack and blocked field goal — had mentioned the playoffs were so close the team could "taste it," Caldwell offered up another of his steely, velvet-wrapped reminders.

"I hope he's talking about tasting practice next week," the coach said, smiling. "Did you ask him particularly what he meant? That's probably what he was talking about. I'll clarify that for him."

A day later, there was no mistaking the message, however. And while it got a bit silly Monday at Caldwell's weekly news conference, all the talk about focus instead of football, with the coach discussing everything from Renaissance thought to Chinese military strategy to texting while driving, that's part of the price of doing business in Detroit.

The fans here desperately want to believe — most of them, anyway. But it's hard to get past the recent past, let alone the entire history of this franchise.

For the second consecutive year, the Lions are in position in late-December to win their division and secure a home playoff date, something they haven't done since Matthew Stafford was in preschool.

But last season, they lost their last four games, and six of their final seven, to throw it all away. And this fall, they've certainly threatened to do it again more than once. Maybe those four wins by a combined eight points are a sign of "grit," as Caldwell says. Or maybe they're a stroke of good luck and bad coaching decisions by the likes of Mike Smith and Joe Philbin, both of whom could be out of a job in a couple weeks. Then again, it's probably worth noting that Stafford has gone three consecutive games without throwing an interception, something he hadn't done since December 2011, the last time the Lions made the playoffs.

Playoffs!?

Regardless, Caldwell knows the track record he's trying to erase. He simply — and smartly — refuses to dwell on it. Just as he refuses to discuss what lies ahead, beyond Sunday's date with the Bears in Chicago.

Win and they're in. And then?

Well, even his family knows not to ask him about that.

"We don't talk about it," he said. "So it's not an issue."

With us, though, it is. Which is why he started talking about the dangers of texting and driving Monday. ("You can't have your focus and attention on two things at one time," he said.) It's also why, when a reporter noted many of the current Lions players haven't been to the playoffs before, and then started to ask about that, Caldwell quickly interrupted.

"And they might not go if they don't start focusing in on this next game, either," he said. "That's a point to make."

Point taken. And understand, this runs a bit deeper than your basic one-game-at-a-time mantra for Caldwell. Maybe not as deep as all that talk about humanism — "The toughest thing for a man to handle is success," Caldwell reminded — or Sun-Tzu's "The Art of War"

Bottom line

Caldwell understands he was brought here to be a rudder, not a sail. His hiring was designed to, as that ancient Chinese general would suggest, seize the opportunities that had been neglected. The ones that died.

The Lions under Jim Schwartz lacked self-awareness and self-control, and it showed down the stretch in 2012 and '13. They lacked other necessities, like a viable secondary receiver or a reliable defensive secondary that could catch passes, too.

But mostly what they lacked was results. So at this moment, that's all that matters.

"You have to earn your way into the playoffs," Caldwell said. "You don't talk your way in; you earn your way in."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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