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