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Detroit — Jim Caldwell won’t look ahead. He can’t. As the Detroit Lions coach has pointed out, multiple times, there are no awards, no trophies handed out for being in first place of the division after Week 12.

“We don’t talk about those things,” Caldwell said after Sunday’s 16-13 win over the Minnesota Vikings. “We don’t look at them. That’s your guys’ job. You guys do a good job with that stuff and keep doing a good job. I’m going to try to keep my guys away from it.

“We’ve got to focus on getting better,” Caldwell said.  “You just don’t have time to look down the road. There’s a lot of teams that have been probably at this point and have lost every one after this one as well and I think that’s the thing that you have to make sure (doesn’t happen). There’re no guarantees, so we’ve got to keep trying to get better.”

Since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, I don’t know how many teams have been first place after Week 12 and gone on to lose all of their remaining games. Probably not many, maybe not any, but this town hasn’t forgotten the 2013 Lions.

Like the current version, the 2013 squad held a one-game lead in the division along with a critical tie-breaker after sweeping the season series from the second place Chicago Bears.

Those Lions were flawed, but had come off their best performance of the season, dismantling the Packers on Thanksgiving, 40-10, to move to 7-5 on the year. Both the Packers and Bears were crumbling due to injuries and it looked like the Lions just had to coast to the finish line.

Instead, Detroit dropped its final four games, allowing Green Bay to crawl into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record. It’s the only time in NFC North history the division champion hasn’t won at least 10.

That information isn’t meant to sour the mood with this current team, a group that’s won six of seven and seems incapable of being rattled, regardless the circumstances in the fourth quarter. This has been a fun season, a joyous season, to this point. It should be embraced and celebrated.

But there’s work to be done. A lot of work. And it won’t be easy.

The Lions can’t take the foot off the gas and Caldwell and crew has undoubtedly already begun preparing for the New Orleans Saints, a 4-6 team that has been on the wrong side of the razor-thin margins that make the NFL so exciting. Five of their six losses have been by a combined 15 points.

The Saints’ strength, a prolific passing attack, is Detroit’s weakness. Even with recent improvements, the defense is still last in opposing passer efficiency.

It’s not going to be easy.

But a win in New Orleans, that would do wonders for the Lions. You see, the Vikings are hosting Cowboys, the hottest team in the league, next Thursday. There’s an opening to put this thing away early.

By the end of next Sunday, the Lions could have a three-game lead in the division, by virtue of the tie-breaker from sweeping the Vikings. And while nothing is a given, a game against the crumbling Bears at Ford Field the following week could reduce the Lions’ magic number to one in short order.

Caldwell can’t look ahead. The players can’t look ahead. But we can, and if the Lions can travel south and knock off the Saints next week, Ford Field can start warming up the printing presses for the first batch of playoff tickets since the building opened in 2000.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers

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