Caldwell refusing to ponder Lions playoff prospects

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Casino odds have nothing to do with it.

Jim Caldwell simply chooses to avoid any talk, however mathematically legitimate, that the Lions could maintain their sudden winning streak and maybe, just maybe, sneak into January’s NFL playoffs.

“You can talk about it, but I don’t,” Caldwell, the Lions head coach, said during Friday’s press briefing at Lions headquarters.
“We don’t talk about anything but the next game, just like we always do.”

Sound philosophy for any NFL coach, particularly one whose next game is a Thursday night soiree against the Packers at Ford Field. The Lions have stitched together a three-game streak, sparked by a victory against the Packers at Green Bay, and at 4-7 need a longer spree if those playoff thoughts conjured by others are to turn from possible to achievable.

“That has nothing to do with us at this point,” Caldwell said, all but running from any playoff chatter. “You add them up when you’re done, and right now we’re worried about all the things we’ve got to face.”

He was speaking specifically of a Packers team that has been moving in a direction opposite the Lions — losing four of its last five games.

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“They’ll be a hungry, angry team, so we better be focused on them,” said the Lions coach, naming a stream of Packers players capable of tormenting Caldwell’s gang: Aaron Rodgers (quarterback), Mike Daniels (defensive end), Clay Matthews (linebacker), etc.

But the fact remains: Caldwell’s team has been behaving markedly different from its September-October profile. The Lions, as the coach and a cast of players noted following Thursday’s 45-14 bashing of the Eagles, played admirably on Thanksgiving in three holy areas an NFL team must shine: offense, defense, special teams.

So many improvements have suddenly become part of what, a few weeks ago, was a moribund group at Allen Park.

The offensive line has shaken off some early atrocities and did a neat job of punishing the Eagles' front.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford butchered Philadelphia’s defense to the tune of five touchdown passes, 337 yards, and a gaudy 137.8 passer rating.

The defense rationed a mere seven points to the Eagles until late, even after safety Glover Quin exited early because of an ankle sprain.

Elsewhere, the hits kept coming: Ziggy Ansah had 3.5 sacks and is leading the NFL in taking down quarterbacks. Rookie running back Ameer Abdullah broke some big runs and hung onto the ball. Linebacker Tamir Whitehead, suddenly revived tight end Brandon Pettigrew, indispensable man Theo Riddick — the Lions are picking up pluses on their player grades in step with a team that by the week has been getting stronger.

At least through November.

Caldwell was asked Friday to explain what, fundamentally, has changed.

Among the players’ testimony is that Stafford and Detroit’s offense clearly are in a better frame of mind with new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Blocking schemes, the Lions said on multiple occasions following the Eagles dismemberment, have also been simplified. Caldwell, in fact, credited line coaches Curtis Modkins and Ron Prince for some artistry there.

But the coach has another thought as to how and why life has changed.

“You can spin it the way you want to, if you’re interested in doing so, which I’m not,” Caldwell said. “But all you do is take a look, and we’re not turning the ball over.

“We had gone from a team that was in the top 12 last year, consistently, to this year where we were at the bottom.

“Any time you’re at the bottom (in turnovers), your record is going to reflect it. That, to me, is the biggest thing. If you want an answer, that’s the true one.

If you take the turnovers away at any point during the season, you’re going to see a little different outcome.”

Caldwell could also concede his quarterback has been playing excellent football. Even with Pettigrew and Golden Tate dropping a couple of passes in their hands Thursday, Stafford was 27-of-38.

It helped that Philly’s defensive front sacked him but once and allowed him, more than a few times, time to throw that various other opponents haven’t deemed acceptable.

But the coach knows who’s pulling the trigger and the accountability that comes with Stafford’s job.

“He’s throwing the ball better, he’s making really good decisions,” Caldwell said, adding that Stafford “runs it a little bit more when he sees something that’s there.

“And I think he’s got help around him. I think we’re getting it to the guys that can do something with it.”

Is it because Stafford has decided his best strategy is to get the ball deeper for bigger gainers as, Caldwell acknowledged, the critics have been crying for? The coach wasn’t buying any such assertion Friday.

“What I’ve been trying to stress,” he said, “is I can go through the film of every week for every single team in our league, and I see more big plays from guys who are completing, two, three, four, five, and six-yard passes than I do guys throwing it 80 yards over the top.

“Those don’t happen very often in our league. If you watch Theo (Riddick), he’s not catching balls 80 yards downfield. But he can turn a three-yard catch into a 23-yard run or run after the catch.”

As far as injuries, Caldwell wouldn’t say if Quin, or another bad-ankle casualty from Thursday, receiver Lance Moore, would be thumbs-up or thumbs-down for the Packers.

Offensive guard Larry Warford, Caldwell said, is undergoing concussion protocol that makes any return indefinite.

It left the coach to ponder a sudden burst of victories – and to put some perspective on a three-game winning streak.

“Getting our fourth victory is not quite like Coach (Tom) Izzo getting his 500th, which is quite a feat,” Caldwell said, throwing a bouquet to Michigan State’s basketball coach, who got his 500th career triumph Thursday. “But congratulations to him.”