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Niyo: Title-starved Lions get shot at elusive glory

John Niyo
DetroitNews-Unknown
The Lions sack Brett Favre during their 30-20 win over the Packers at the Silverdome on Jan. 2, 1994. The Lions intercepted Favre four times and won the NFC Central Division title.

Allen Park — It was nearly a quarter-century ago, almost half a lifetime for Chris Spielman, but after the former All-Pro linebacker with the Lions ponders the question for a moment — the one about whether he could’ve imagined then what we all know now — he can’t help but laugh.

It seems almost inexplicable that the Lions, who’ll play Green Bay for the NFC North title Sunday night at Ford Field, haven’t won a division title since Spielman and his teammates last did it in 1993, beating those same Packers in the regular-season finale before a raucous crowd of 77,510 at the Silverdome on Jan. 2, 1994.

“But that’s pro sports, you know?” said Spielman, the heart-and-soul leader of a Detroit defense that flustered a young Brett Favre into four interceptions as the Lions prevailed, 30-20, that afternoon. “It ebbs and flows. It’s always great highs or great lows. There’s nothing ever normal. So, did I think it could be this long? Unlikely. But it has been. And I’m not surprised.”

Nor is he surprised to hear the phone ring this week from Detroit, asked to reminisce about what passes for a heyday around here — the Lions have won just three division crowns since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and two came in 1991 and ’93 — while an angst-ridden fan base braces for what comes next.

The Lions still could clinch a playoff wild-card spot Sunday afternoon, if the Giants win at Washington. But they’ve controlled their fate in the NFC North ever since their bye week in mid-November, and a month later they held a two-game lead with three games to play.

Now it’s down to this, though, a “one-game season,” as quarterback Matthew Stafford put it Monday night after a 42-21 loss at Dallas raised the stakes along with the anxiety.

“I can’t wait,” receiver Golden Tate said. “I’m excited for this team, I’m excited for this city. We have a great opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a loooong time.”

Just how long, though, even Tate didn’t realize.

“Last time we won it was, what, ’99?” he asked Wednesday.

Long time ago

Nope, try again. And when asked what he was doing in ’93, Tate, who would’ve been a 5-year-old at the time, shrugged and guessed he would’ve been busy playing with toys. Maybe a football even.

Spielman, meanwhile, had already retired by 1999, ending his 10-year career after serious neck injuries.

But in ‘93, he was the captain and MVP of a top-10 defense — a unit bolstered by the offseason trade for pass rusher Pat Swilling — that held nine opponents to 14 points or less.

Chris Spielman says the Lions have an excellent opportunity to win the NFC North Division.

Still, that team ran a similar fade pattern late in the season, and the Lions were embarrassed at home by the 49ers the week before Christmas, just another turn in a rollercoaster ride that included a little bit of everything.

There was that ridiculous quarterback carousel Wayne Fontes kept spinning.

(The low point came when owner William Clay Ford accidentally left a message congratulating Andre Ware for being named the starter on Erik Kramer’s answering machine.)

And there was the firing of offensive coordinator Dan Henning following an early-December shutout at home against the Vikings, as a comfortable division lead had quickly evaporated.

There also was a knee injury Barry Sanders suffered on Thanksgiving, and a subsequent rib injury that idled backup Derrick Moore, opening the door for a little-known running back named Eric Lynch, who racked up 52 carries in the final two weeks of the season.

Lynch was prepared

Against the Packers, Lynch, a former Grand Valley State standout who’d worked his way up from the practice squad, rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught five passes that day — a career’s worth of highlights all in one game — and told reporters afterward, “I’ve prepared for two years to do this.”

Maybe that’ll be someone else in Honolulu blue and silver Sunday night. Maybe it’ll be Zach Zenner, a former fourth-stringer who enjoyed a breakout performance Monday night in Dallas and figures to be the lead back again this week.

 

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Or maybe it’ll be an unsung role player on defense coming up with a big play late to seal a victory, something the Lions have made a habit of on both sides of the ball, posting an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2016.

So the fact that it all comes down to the wire this season?

“It definitely seems fitting,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said, smiling. “It definitely does. And we’ll see what happens. But it seems like when it’s hard, that’s when we play best.”

It doesn’t get much more difficult than this, obviously, facing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who’ve won four of the last five NFC North titles and arrive in Detroit as the hottest team in the league at the moment, winners of five in a row dating back to Nov. 20.

Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ even-keeled head coach, insists his team won’t be daunted by all that drama.

“But I’ve made certain that we told our guys, ‘You’ve got to embrace it,’” Caldwell said. “I mean, it’s a great opportunity.”

Game of opportunity

And if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the NFL after all these years, Spielman said, it’s exactly that.

“Football is a game of opportunity, and when you have it, it comes down to whether you take advantage of it or not,” he said, recalling something former Lions’ special-teams coach Frank Gansz used to tell his players in the early ‘90s.

“The best way I can put it, and I always talk to my kids this way, in their sports or whatever the challenge is, I say, ‘Look, you don’t have to be the best. You’ve just gotta be the best that day.’

“Both teams, if you were to say to them, ‘Hey, in your 16th game of the season, if you can say ‘We’re in if we win,’ everybody would sign up for that now.’ So it doesn’t matter what happened, it doesn’t matter how you got there, it doesn’t matter that you won eight games in the fourth quarter coming from behind.

“That’s all history. What does matter is what you do now with your opportunity.

“So that’s what I’m anxious to see — and I’m sure that’s what everybody is anxious to see — on Sunday night.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: johnniyo