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Niyo: Lions can be saviors in sour Detroit sports scene

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park — Where have you gone, Steve Yzerman?

What’s that you say?

Stevie Y has left and gone away, along with the Red Wings playoff mystique, the Tigers payroll allowance, Michigan’s college football playoff hopes, Michigan State’s bowl streak and maybe the Pistons mojo.

So now a city — a region, really — turns its lonely eyes to you, Matthew Stafford. And to the Lions as the last, best hope for some holiday cheer on the sporting front.

Sure, there’s Western Michigan’s still-perfect season to celebrate. And Michigan likely is headed to a New Year’s Six bowl even after last weekend’s title-crushing loss in Columbus.

But as the calendar flips to December this week, the division-leading Lions are the lone bright light on the local pro sports landscape. Fresh off another last-second victory — this time over the NFC North rival Vikings — the Cardiac Cats find themselves in control of their playoff destiny. And also in control of a sizable portion of this city’s emotional state, which probably is as dangerous as it sounds.

Not simply because they’re winning, and raising expectations as they go, unlike most of their peers here in Detroit. But also because of the way they’re winning, with all 11 of their games decided by seven points or less and all seven of their victories requiring fourth-quarter comebacks.

“The Lions just find ways to win,” ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said. “They have a soul to them. There’s something inside ’em that just says, ‘We refuse to lose.’ They have the greatest gift a team can have: They think they’re better than they really are. And sometimes that can carry you a long way.”

Positive vibes

How good they really are, and how far they’ll go, is anyone’s guess at this point. The Lions are 7-4 at the moment, holding what amounts to a two-game lead over the Vikings thanks to a divisional tiebreaker. But they’ll play three of their next four on the road, starting with Sunday’s trip to face the high-flying Saints and then — following a trap game at home against the Bears — back-to-back road dates against the Giants (8-3) and Cowboys (10-1). Then comes that regular-season finale against the Packers, and we all know how well those usually turn out — the Lions are 1-10 against the Packers in December or January this century.

Lions' even-keeled Caldwell has history as comeback king

Still, optimism abounds, and for rather obvious reasons, what with a young roster’s improving health and Stafford’s growing reputation as Captain Clutch. Only two other teams have had seven fourth-quarter comeback wins in a season — the 2009 Colts and 2011 Giants. The latter went on to win a Super Bowl, while the former — with Jim Caldwell at the helm — made it to one only to lose to the Saints.

“I do think that there is a sense of belief, particularly when you’re down, if you think you can still get it done,” Caldwell said Monday when asked about all that. “I do think that’s a factor, I do believe that. … They gain confidence. They believe in one another. They trust they can get it done.”

They’d better, or it could be a rather dreary winter for sports around here.

Others stumble

The Tigers are threatening to hold a fire sale, stoking the flames of fan discontent with talk of slashing payroll and possibly trading stars like Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez. Baseball’s Winter Meetings are next week in Washington, D.C., and so far the Tigers offseason plans read like a sad country song for a team that used to swing for the fences in free agency.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings quarter-century run of postseason appearances looks to be in serious jeopardy with the team on pace for its worst record since 1991. Just past the NHL’s quarter pole, Detroit sits in seventh place in the eight-team Atlantic Division, and with a handful of regulars out with significant injuries, they face two critical games this week at Joe Louis Arena, where they’ve won just one of their last eight on home ice.

The Pistons are in better shape, but still find themselves treading water, two games below .500 and a game out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference without starting point guard Reggie Jackson. And that’s mostly because they’ve been awful (1-8) away from The Palace, the home they just announced they’re leaving to move downtown to the new Little Caesars Arena next fall.

“Pathetic,” was the word Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy used to describe his team’s defensive effort in a road loss to the Thunder. And it’s not the first time he’s used it this fall.

Add that to the “bitterly disappointed” Michigan coach — Jim Harbaugh’s postgame rant gave voice to the frustrations of an entire fan base after last weekend’s rivalry loss to Ohio State — and it’s a steady patter of unpleasant news lately.

A year after winning the Big Ten and making the playoffs, Michigan State’s football team climbed to No. 8 in the national polls this fall. But then it lost nine of its last 10 games — the lone win coming against hapless Rutgers — and after a season-ending thrashing at Penn State, Mark Dantonio summed it up like this: “Disappointing outcome to a disappointing season.”

Lions fans know all about those, of course. So do the players, even the newcomers, like defensive end Kerry Hyder, one of this season’s biggest surprises.

“Well, success builds confidence, so confidence is building,” Hyder said. “But one thing we know about the league, it will humble you. So we’re trying to stay focused, and focus on what we’ve got going.”

They should know, though, they’re not the only ones. From here on out, they’ll have everyone’s undivided attention in this town. @JohnNiyo