The Detroit Lions will enter Ford Field this Christmas Eve with an opportunity to secure their first playoff berth since 1999.
A win would represent the exorcism of one of the final remaining demons that have haunted the franchise throughout a tumultuous past, highlighted by a disastrous decade of debacles.
As the Lions attempt to further separate themselves from the franchise’s past failures, their current opportunity is eerily similar to the one that launched them into 10 years of obscurity.
December 24, 2000 – exactly 11 years to the date of this Saturday’s contest – the Detroit Lions had accumulated nine wins and hosted the sub-.500 Chicago Bears. A win would put the Lions in the post season but a loss coupled with a win by the St. Louis Rams would douse their playoff hopes while squandering a 5-2 start to the season.
The Lions held a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, the post-season in their cross-hairs, before Chicago defensive back R.W. McQuarters returned a Stoney Case interception 61 yards for a touchdown.
The Lions fought back and tied the game with a Jason Hanson field goal but McQuarters sacked Case, forcing a fumble recovered by the Bears, with 49 seconds left. The turnover setup a 54-yard field goal by former Michigan State standout Paul Edinger with two seconds remaining in the game -- effectively ending the Lions playoff aspirations.
The only Lion player remaining on the roster is kicker Jason Hanson, who remembers the game well.
“We were very good,” said Hanson. “We had played pretty good that game and at the end we made some mistakes and they capitalized and he (hit the 54 yard field goal) to beat us and everyone was fired and (then) 10 years of oblivion.”
The oblivion referenced by Hanson was the aftershock of the loss, which was felt beyond the 2000 season. The failure ushered in the Matt Millen era, which resulted in eight consecutive losing seasons - including the league’s only 0-16 season, before Millen’s dismissal.
After current general manager Martin Mayhew took over for Millen he restructured the coaching staff and the roster. In a short time, Mayhew has done a great job of adding talent, putting the Lions in a position to reach the playoffs.
Hanson sees the talent but is quick to remind his teammates the opportunity to earn a playoff spot is not the equivalent of securing a playoff spot.
“We’ve had some decent mixes before but we have the talent to back it up now,” said Hanson. “We’ve got both pieces (talent and personality). I’m the Grinch. I hope nobody here is too excited because it doesn’t mean anything until you do it.”
Hanson’s reserved enthusiasm is echoed throughout the locker room, though Hanson’s preference to conquer before celebrate is most likely magnified due to his past experience.
Hanson joined the Lions as a rookie in 1992 and enjoyed making the playoffs in five of his first eight seasons. The Lions won only a single playoff game during that time but frequent playoff appearances can project the illusion of ease when attempting to reach the post season.
The Lions have failed to make the post season since Hanson’s fifth trip, though the veteran kicker believes the current version of the team has the talent to surpass the accomplishments of their counterparts from the 1990s.
“Those were good teams and we have that again,” said Hanson. “I say this (with) respect for everyone that I’ve ever played with but we’re more talented now, and it shows. Then you start mixing in stability with the coaches and Coach Schwartz is doing a great job and the mix of personalities. It’s starting to come together but we’ll see what it means coming up.”
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