Lions' Freeney knows Caldwell's faith isn't folly

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Defensive end Dwight Freeney and coach Jim Caldwell have been in this dire situation before.

With four weeks of the regular season remaining, the Lions have fallen well off pace in the playoff race and have no safety net to save them now.

But while their postseason hopes are on the verge of flatlining, there is still a faint pulse, which is all that matters at this point of the season.

“This is December, this is the fourth quarter for us,” Freeney said Thursday after practice. “We all talk about the fourth quarter and what that means. That means hitting your stride in the fourth quarter and that’s what you want to do. So many teams of Jim Caldwell’s have done that in the past years, so I don’t think this is going to be anything different.

“I think Jim does a great job of letting those guys know, ‘Hey, it’s the fourth quarter. Let’s get going.’ Anything can happen right now and it’s true.”

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Freeney experienced it firsthand under Caldwell with the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in 2010. After tumbling down the standings following a three-game skid, the Colts entered Week 14 with a 6-6 record and needed to win out to have any chance at sniffing the playoffs.

And they did, rattling off four straight victories — two at home and two on the road — to grab an AFC wild-card spot.

“You really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Freeney said. “It’s just about playing your best ball in December.

“I mean, I think the big thing that you learn from that experience is that anything is possible. It’s just people like to write you off when you’re having an average year, but you win four straight and all of a sudden you find yourself in a different situation.”

Freeney said the difference down the stretch was the Colts started to play more consistent in all phases, adding that some players just seem to play better when their backs are against the wall and there are no other options left.

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It’s an example of resiliency Caldwell can point to, but doesn’t need to go that far back to draw from. During his first season with the Lions in 2014, the team faced a similar scenario after back-to-back losses to the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots dropped them to 7-4 with five games left.

The Lions bounced back and responded by winning four straight to lock down an NFC wild-card bid.

“We got better in all the areas where we should get better in right down the stretch at a good time to give us a chance,” Caldwell said. “So, we ran the ball better. We threw the ball better. We didn’t have turnovers. We created them on defense. All the things that you need to get done. So, we did all those things better.

“But the big thing is the way you get it done is that you really narrow your focus. I mean that’s the key. I mean anything other than that, you’re going to have problems, so you got to narrow your focus and really work on the things you need to get better at. This is the time of year we have to be clicking on all cylinders.”

The Lions, though, have been sputtering and misfiring as of late.

The offensive line has had trouble protecting a banged-up Matthew Stafford and could be down two starters with right tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang unable to practice yet this week, and Stafford’s status is still up in the air.

The running game continues to spin its wheels and has never seemingly got on track, while the defensive line isn’t generating much — if any — pressure.

Add it all up and the Lions have a 10-percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But despite the long odds, there’s still a glimmer of hope as the Lions enter the closing stretch with four winnable games, starting Sunday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And as someone who has been here before, Freeney said it’s imperative to not get overwhelmed with the anxiety of the moment and lose sight of what lies directly ahead.

“I’m always up for a challenge,” Freeney said. “We’re all in it together and every piece matters from defense, offense. Every piece matters in trying to get there.

“It’s all about getting hot at the right time. That’s what we’re trying to do here and this has to be the week for it.”