Bob Wojnowski: Lions tough to figure out, but let’s try


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park — Finally, you can do it without being mocked. You can wear your tattered No. 20 jersey in public and loudly suggest this is the year, and not everyone chuckles now.

The debate is legitimate, not merely the slurred rants of Lions fans. You don’t have to be drunk or delusional to suggest this is the year the Lions return to that strange, mythical place known as the playoffs. Lots of people more respected than me have suggested it.

Nothing is more deeply craved in this town than a Lions playoff berth, and like many, I’ve spent the past month batting the idea around. It’s not an easy thing to grasp. The Lions are three seasons removed from 0-16, and are 8-24 under Jim Schwartz. But they finished last season on a 4-0 run, and Matthew Stafford is healthy and so hungry, he might eat the Curse of Bobby Layne.

The Lions hear the playoff talk, appreciate it, but steadfastly decline to wallow in it.

“Honestly, it doesn’t make any difference,” Schwartz said Wednesday. “Does it make it easier to watch TV? Maybe. We have a lot of expectations, we just choose not to make them a big deal. All that stuff is nice, it’s good for our city, it’s probably nice for guys’ moms. But we’re gonna let Sundays speak for themselves.”

Well, let me speak for Sundays then. One moment, I’m positive the Lions will be in the playoff hunt. The next moment, I’m thinking they’re a year away.

At least they’re no longer a decade away. The last season they made the playoffs was 1999. Since their 1957 championship, the Lions have one measly playoff victory, and grown men still shed tears of joy recalling that 38-6 pummeling of the Cowboys on Jan. 5, 1992.

We’ll know something about these Lions right away Sunday in Tampa, where they open against a Buccaneers team that also will scrap for a playoff spot. A year ago, the Lions pulled a 23-20 overtime stunner that essentially knocked the Buccaneers out of the playoffs, even though they finished 10-6.

Playoff debate will rage

Buck up and buckle in because this will be an unpredictable ride, starting in the heat of Tampa and ending in the cold of Green Bay. In between, the debate will rage:

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Stafford’s shoulder is healed, and in fact, surgery and rehab made him stronger. He could be great, as long as his mishaps are quirks of misfortune, not proof he’s injury-prone.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Technically, Stafford is injury-prone. Sorry, but the numbers don’t lie — he’s played in 13 of 32 games.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Have you seen their defensive line?! Ndamukong Suh is a behemoth, Corey Williams is terrific and Cliff Avril gnaws on quarterback limbs.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Opposing teams will counter their fierce pass rush with quick passes and draws. That will frustrate Suh to the point he swings a quarterback over his head and flings him through the goalposts, earning a $20,000 fine.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: They have stars or potential stars in Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Suh and Williams. That’s a nice core.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: You still have to run the ball and stop the run, and they haven’t proven they can do either. The offensive line pass-protects better than it run-blocks, and the loss of rookie back Mikel Leshoure is huge, putting a lot on Jahvid Best.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: GM Martin Mayhew has significantly upgraded the talent by making shrewd acquisitions, drafting well and not being Matt Millen. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch is a crucial addition.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: This year’s top rookies — DT Nick Fairley, Leshoure — won’t make an immediate impact due to injuries. And the secondary still lacks big-play talent.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: Lots of NFL teams leap up suddenly. Last season, Tampa Bay went from 3-13 to 10-6. Why not Detroit?!

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: “Why not the Lions?!” is a mantra passed down from generation to generation. This franchise long has defied all statistical trends.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: NFL experts such as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and SI’s Peter King say they will, and both sound very authoritative on TV.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Most Las Vegas books still have the over-under on Lions victories at 7.5, and Vegas is a more-authoritative king than King.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: The NFC requires six teams to qualify. Four are quasi-givens — Green Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia and whatever slug wins the West (St. Louis, maybe). That leaves New Orleans, the N.Y. Giants, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit and Tampa Bay battling for two wild cards, and none are especially imposing.

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Green Bay, Atlanta, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans and New York will.

The Lions will make the playoffs because: They’ll go to Green Bay for the Jan. 1 finale 9-6 and the experience and swagger to finally smite the ghosts of Lambeau Field!

The Lions won’t make the playoffs because: Green Bay doesn’t need ghosts when it has Aaron Rodgers. The Packers will win 20-14 to end the Lions season at 9-7.

That’s not what you wanted to hear, I know. But take solace in this: The mocking is over, and the debating has just begun.

Bet on it

Bodog.com odds for the NFL season:

Super Bowl XLVI

NFC

Good news? Lions’ Ndamukong Suh won’t grace ‘Madden’ cover


Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Ndamukong Suh has avoided the Madden curse.

The Lions defensive tackle lost to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the first round of ESPN.com’s bracket-style competition, which will determine which player graces the cover of the newest installment of the popular video game “Madden NFL 12.”

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Rodgers, a No. 1 seed in the bracket, got 72 percent of the vote and faces Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the second round.

Appearing on the Madden cover is considered an honor for NFL players, but past cover boys also have experienced a decline in performance, usually due to an injury.

Bob Wojnowski: Big Bad Ben will beat the warm, fuzzy Packers


Bob Wojnowski

The Green Bay Packers are a nice, warm story straight out of the cold. Aaron Rodgers is a freshly minted star, clean-cut and sharp-throwing.

Fans like the Packers. Experts love the Packers to beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. One ESPN survey of national prognosticators had 31 of 45 picking the Packers.

I’m not here to spoil anyone’s Super fun. You’ll probably ruin it anyhow by serving too many vegetables and not enough meatballs at your party. I’m here to tell you the newest American Anti-Hero is about to be Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, like it or not.

Hate Big Bad Ben if you wish. Some of his alleged off-field behavior has been deplorable. I don’t know if he has become a better person, but it doesn’t really matter today. The man is as tough and clutch as any quarterback ever, and the Steelers are the nastiest bunch in football, which is why they’ll beat the Packers.

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This should be a classic because both teams belong, both play great defense and both have tremendous quarterbacks. The Steelers will win 31-24, and that should set up an entertaining dilemma for Disney, which always tapes a post-Super Bowl commercial, asking a star player where he’s going next. To Disney World? Uh, not sure that’d be Roethlisberger’s choice, but if you want your sports stars wrapped in neat, tidy packages, sorry.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the NFL’s shiniest long-time stars. Rodgers, playing in his first Super Bowl, probably is next. But guess what? Roethlisberger’s playoff record (10-2) is better than all of them, better than Brady’s 14-5 and way better than Manning’s 9-10.

As you know, the Lions have steadfastly declined to participate in Super Bowls, and the popular theory is, it’s because they’ve never had the quarterback. We don’t know if they have him now, with Matthew Stafford’s shoulder woes. But it’s not that simple. You must have the defense too, and Pittsburgh and Green Bay have the league’s best.

The AFC has been dominated for years by Roethlisberger, Brady and Manning. But you know how many different NFC quarterbacks have reached the Super Bowl the past eight years? Eight. The Lions certainly aren’t ready for that yet, but eventually, it’ll be there for the taking, and it doesn’t just take a great quarterback.

When the Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field, Roethlisberger was mostly miserable — 9-for-21 for 123 yards and two interceptions. That was five years ago, and even though he was outstanding beating the Cardinals two years ago, it’s as if Super Bowl XL somehow tainted him.

If the Steelers prevail now, Roethlisberger, 28, officially would rank among the all-time elite, only the fifth quarterback to win three Super Bowls, joining Joe Montana (four), Terry Bradshaw (four), Troy Aikman (three) and Brady (three).

At 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, Roethlisberger sometimes is unorthodox, sometimes inaccurate. But he makes clutch plays and shakes off tacklers better than anyone, and he’ll need to. This won’t be easy, with standout rookie center Maurkice Pouncey sidelined, further weakening Pittsburgh’s offensive line. The blitz-happy Packers, led by Clay Matthews, had 47 sacks in the regular season, second only to — naturally — the Steelers’ 48.

The Steelers’ defense is slightly better, and more punishing. Linebacker James Harrison, who rang up $100,000 in fines this season, spent part of the week mocking commissioner Roger Goodell for cracking down on brutal hits. Harrison’s classic: “I just want to tackle them softly on the ground, and if ya’ll can, lay a pillow down where I tackle them so they don’t hit the ground too hard. OK, Mr. Goodell?”

Niiiice. And nasty.

The Steelers’ ground game, with underrated Rashard Mendenhall, is better. Green Bay won’t be able to run on Pittsburgh, and one dimension just isn’t enough.

That’s my dime-store analysis, and I’m sorry if it’s not as in-depth as the biggest story this week out of Dallas: “Roethlisberger took teammates to a piano bar Tuesday night, warbled a Billy Joel song and ran up a $1,000 tab! Oh no!”

Oh who cares? It’d only truly be a story if Roethlisberger belted out a Josh Groban tune.

Actually, it’d only be a story if Roethlisberger displayed more ugly behavior. He has been accused of sexual assault twice in two years, and although he wasn’t convicted of anything, he was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

No one’s brushing aside disgusting behavior. But just as Michael Vick is entitled to rebuild his image, so is Roethlisberger. He tried mightily during Super Bowl week, answering critical questions with charm and humor.

People shouldn’t be fooled by that, either. Perceptions rightly are forged on the field, and Roethlisberger is one of the toughest, grimiest ever to play quarterback. That’s who he is, who the Steelers are, who they’ve always been. A vivid, vicious reminder is due.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Tim Twentyman: Top cornerbacks will be gone before Lions pick, Kiper says


Tim Twentyman: NFL Insider

Mel Kiper Jr., who has been ESPN’s point man on the NFL draft since 1984, has some bad news for Lions fans hoping to snag a cornerback in the first round.

Kiper said the Lions’ top four needs are cornerback, outside linebacker, offensive tackle and defensive end. But he thinks there’s little chance the Lions get a corner deserving of the No. 13 pick.

LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara are considered the top two corners in the draft. After Peterson and Amukamara, Kiper said the rest of the corners are more deserving of late-first round to second-round consideration.

Peterson is considered a top-five pick and Kiper doesn’t think there’s any way the Lions have a chance at Amukamara unless they move up.

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“I just can’t see (Amukamara) getting past Dallas (at No. 9),” he said. “Surprises happen every draft, and you never say never, but right now, I have a tough time getting him down to Dallas. I thought he’d fit in good with a couple teams earlier; San Francisco (No. 7) could look corner. I do think at No. 13 that would be a stretch to try and get him.”

Kiper still thinks the Lions will take UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, which would certainly fill a need.

But Kiper also alluded to a possible wild-card selection.

“I have (offensive tackle) Nate Soder out of Colorado going one pick ahead of the Lions at No. 12,” Kiper said. “He’s had a nice week down at Mobile so far (Senior Bowl), which you knew he would.

“I think he has the most upside out of any lineman in the draft, be it offensive lineman or defensive lineman. He’s a former tight end. He’s a chiseled kid. He’s going to keep getting better and better because of limited experience on the offensive line.

“The history of tight end-turned-offensive tackles in the NFL over the last 35 years is pretty good. I think he would be an interesting guy. He’s the only one right now of the offensive tackles that I think has a chance to really jump up. I think Soder is going to be the hot guy because of the upside and the fact that he’s that diamond in the rough; he’s going to keep getting better and better.”

If the Lions pass on Ayers for Soder, or Amukamara drops, Kiper said there are good 4-3 outside linebackers available in the second, third and fourth rounds that will fit the Lions’ needs.

He named Bruce Carter (North Carolina), Lawrence Wilson (Connecticut), Mason Foster (Washington) and Ross Homan (Ohio State) as possibilities for the Lions later in the draft.

By the numbers

$83,000 — Payout for each player on the winning team in Super Bowl XVL

$42,000 — Payout for each player on the losing team

$15,000 — Payout for each player on the winning team in Super Bowl I (1967)

$7,500 — Payout for each player on the losing team

Air attack

Still don’t think the NFL is a passing league? A record 22 quarterbacks passed for 3,000 yards or more this season. The previous high was 19 in 2001 and 2009.

Philip Rivers, Chargers — 4,710

Peyton Manning, Colts — 4,700

Drew Brees, Saints — 4,620

Matt Schaub, Texans — 4,370

Eli Manning, Giants — 4,002

Carson Palmer, Bengals — 3,970

Aaron Rodgers, Packers — 3,922

Tom Brady, Patriots — 3,900

Matt Ryan, Falcons — 3,705

Kyle Orton, Broncos — 3,653

Joe Flacco, Ravens — 3,622

Sam Bradford, Rams — 3,512

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers — 3,451

Donovan McNabb, Redskins — 3,377

Chad Henne, Dolphins — 3,301

Mark Sanchez, Jets — 3,291

Jay Cutler, Bears — 3,274

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers — 3,200

Matt Cassel, Chiefs — 3,116

Michael Vick, Eagles — 3,018

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks — 3,001

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills — 3,000

He said it

“The entire senior leadership team stands with me in its commitment to resolving the CBA issues with the players union. While several other executives have also volunteered to make additional reductions to their compensation, I have asked them not to take that step at this time as we continue our negotiating efforts.”

— NFL commisioner Roger Goodell, who said he’ll cut his salary to $1 if there is a work stoppage after the collective bargaining agreement expires in March. Goodell makes $10 million per year.

ttwentyman@detnews.com

Aaron Rodgers leads Packers in bombardment of Falcons


Packers 48, Falcons 21

Paul Newberry / Associated Press

Atlanta — As Aaron Rodgers trotted off the field, savoring another playoff win, he was serenaded with chants of “Go, Pack, Go!”

This wasn’t Lambeau Field, but it sure sounded like it.

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Looking very much at home, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes, ran for another score and led the Green Bay Packers to their second straight postseason road victory with a stunning 48-21 rout of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.

“This just feels so good right now,” said Rodgers, who threw for 366 yards and led Green Bay to the highest-scoring playoff game in its storied history.

The Packers (12-6) will have to win one more on the road to complete their improbable run from sixth seed to the Super Bowl, but nothing looks out of the question the way Rodgers is playing. He’ll lead Green Bay into the NFC championship game at Chicago or Seattle next weekend.

“This probably was my best performance — the stage we were on, the importance of this game,” Rodgers said. “It was a good night.”

He completed 31 of 36 passes and put up more yards than Brett Favre — the guy he replaced in Green Bay — ever threw for in a playoff game. After knocking off Michael Vick and the Eagles in Philadelphia, then dominating Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta, Rodgers is creating his own legacy in Titletown USA.

Brett who?

Green Bay scored 35 consecutive points, including Tramon Williams’ 70-yard interception return on the final play of the first half that left the Falcons (13-4) and a crowd of more than 69,000 in a state of shock as the teams headed to the locker room.

The Packers could’ve left punter Tim Masthay at home. He was never needed.

“I felt like I was in the zone,” Rodgers said.

Ryan, who beat out Rodgers for a spot in the Pro Bowl, had a miserable night. He also was picked off in the end zone, costing Atlanta another scoring chance early on that might’ve changed the complexion of the game, and lost a fumble attempting a simple sneak. In two career playoff games, Matty Ice is 0-2 with six turnovers and a safety.

“Anytime you’re in the playoffs, you have an opportunity to win it all,” Ryan said. “When that doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating.”

The Falcons went into the playoffs as the NFC’s top-seeded team for only the second time in franchise history. The result was the same as it was during the 1980 season: one and done.

In the locker room afterward, coach Mike Smith tried to make sense of it for his players.

“We will learn from it. That’s the important thing,” he said. “I also told ’em, as bad as they feel right now, remember the whole body of work we put out there this year. We can’t forget that either.”

This game was pretty much over when Rodgers guided the Packers on an 80-yard drive to open the second half, running the last 7 yards for the TD that made it 35-14.

When Rodgers drove the Packers on yet another scoring drive, capped off with a 7-yard pass to John Kuhn late in the third quarter, thousands of red-clad fans headed for the exits, not even bothering to hang around for the final period of a magical season than turned into a green nightmare in the playoffs.

The Falcons simply couldn’t stop Rodgers, who carved up the Atlanta defense on four drives of at least 80 yards.

Time after time, Rodgers ducked a shoulder or pulled off a nifty spin move to get away from a rusher, leaving him grasping at air. Inevitably, he found the open man in what became an increasingly tortured night for the Falcons.

“I had eyes in the back of my head,” Rodgers quipped.

Atlanta’s only defensive stop came on Green Bay’s opening possession, when Stephen Nicholas chased down Greg Jennings from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by Brett Grimes.

The Falcons quickly drove for the opening score, a 12-yard run by Michael Turner. Unfortunately for the home team, it had to give the ball back to Rodgers. And, as everyone soon discovered, there was no stopping No. 12. A 13-play, 81-yard drive evened the score, Rodgers finishing it off with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson.

The Falcons’ last gasp, as it turned out, was Eric Weems’ 102-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, the longest scoring play in NFL playoff history.

Rodgers went right back to work, even after the Packers bobbled the next kickoff out of bounds at the 8-yard line. With nearly the entire field in front of him, he guided the Packers 92 yards in 10 plays for Kuhn’s 1-yard plunge that made it 14-all.

Ryan was the first to crack in this quarterback duel. He had the Falcons in scoring position again, but Michael Jenkins slipped on a pass in the end zone, allowing Williams to make an easy interception.

Back to Rodgers, who needed only seven plays to torch the Falcons on an 80-yard drive. The touchdown was a perfectly thrown pass to James Jones along the side of the end zone, allowing the receiver to leap over shorter cornerback Brent Grimes for a 20-yard score with 48 seconds left in the first half.

The Packers had their first lead, 21-14, but it was still a game.

Not for long.

Atlanta hustled into position to try a field goal before halftime, thanks to a pair of pass interference penalties. But Ryan was sacked by Clay Matthews with 10 seconds to go, forcing the Falcons to call their final timeout.

Instead of sending out Matt Bryant to attempt a 53-yard kick, coach Mike Smith wanted to get it a little closer. Bad move. The Packers knew Ryan had to throw it near the sideline to stop the clock, and Williams read the play perfectly.

The cornerback, who sealed the win over the Eagles by intercepting Vick in the end zone, stepped in front of a quick out pass intended for Roddy White and was gone on a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown on the final play of the half.

“I recognized the formation,” Williams said. “I knew they were trying to get into position for a field goal.”

The second half was one long victory lap for the Packers, whose hefty contingent of fans was able to move down right near the edge of the emptying Georgia Dome and cheer on their team.

For the Falcons, nothing but misery.

A long pass completion was overturned with a replay. Ryan fumbled a snap while attempting a sneak on third-and-short. Jenkins lost the ball after a catch, Atlanta’s fourth turnover of the night. Tony Gonzalez hobbled off with a sprained ankle.