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Caldwell keeps Sunday's playoff implications in check

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Sunday's game between the Lions (7-2) and Cardinals (8-1) could have massive NFC playoff implications.

Both teams currently lead their divisions — the Lions are a game ahead of the Packers (6-3) in the north and the Cardinals are two games ahead of the Seahawks (6-3) in the west.

There are still six games left after Sunday, but the winner of the game in Phoenix Sunday will be in position to win the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

But Lions coach Jim Caldwell is trying to approach it like any other game.

"I'm not certain what you mean by a game of this magnitude in the season," Caldwell said before practice Friday. "Even the first one was like this one. The one last week was like this one.

"We're not in the third round of the playoffs, you know what I mean? It's a game for us. We're playing an outstanding team and we've got to go find a way to win it. That's really it."

Sunday's game is the biggest one because it's the next one, Caldwell said and has said about nearly every game this season. The more important part, though, is he thinks the players understand that message.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, coach Bruce Arians had no problem discussing the importance of Sunday's game.

"Hell yeah," he said via The Arizona Republic. "It's for the No. 1 seed in the NFC this week. Just this week, now. It's big. If we get there, that's a long way off. But, hell yeah it does."

The Lions have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and win the division since 1993, but the result of Sunday's game won't prevent them from accomplishing those goals. Since Caldwell took over in January, he's tried to change the culture of what's been a downtrodden franchise for more than 50 years, and even though he wouldn't take credit, the first-year coach has instilled a sense of belief in a team that closed the 2013 season on a 1-6 run.

"I can just tell you this team's appetite for winning has changed," Caldwell said. "I think we had to change their ambitions, and that's part of changing the culture."

Those ambitions are now in sight after a charmed first nine games, including winning the last three games with the game-winning score in the final two minutes of each.

Caldwell has reminded the players that how they act on and off the field plays a critical role in the outcome of the games and whether or not the team can fulfill its goals. And "every day, every minute" Caldwell said he reminds his players of that notion.

And as important as Sunday's game could be, Caldwell said his message hasn't changed this week.

"It's not like you lose this game and your season's done," he said. "That's not the way it is. We focus in on this one, we get after it and find a way to win it against a very tough team."