ESCANABA - After years of getting chunks of coal in their stockings, the staunch fans of the Detroit Lions finally received a special Christmas present.
The Lions overwhelmed San Diego 38-10 Saturday to secure their first playoff berth since 1999. The playoff qualifier came just three years after the worst season in NFL history, that horrendous 0-16 mark that tested the faith of even the most avid fan.
This Detroit team is not just a qualifier. The Lions are a definite contender. Wow, that is hard to fathom, isn't it?
A healthy Matthew Stafford, who has finally played a full season, is a major factor in the Lions' rise as he moves up in the quarterback club, just behind such notables as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers but equal to players like Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Phillip Rivers and Michael Vick.
Brees, who has been lighting it up at a record level, has a huge advantage by playing more than half his games inside, an advantage shared by Stafford and Ryan. An asterisk should be placed alongside their passing numbers.
Saturday he hit seven receivers, completing 29-of-36 passes for 373 yards and giving him a team-record 4,518 yards for the season. Even a little facial hair does not hide the fact he still looks like a little kid in a man's body.
Stafford has one of the best receiving corps in the NFL at his disposal, led by the incomparable Calvin Johnson, perhaps the premier threat in the pass-happy league. Johnson has all the tremendous tools displayed previously by Randy Moss, without the garbage.
Receivers Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew are also standouts and Tony Schefflier isn't too shabby.
The Lions are missing an adequate threat at running back, however, which prevents the aerial game from really breaking loose. Kevin Smith is a nice story returning from career-threatening injury, and Jahvid Best showed signs of talent before a concussion put him on the shelf, but don't be surprised to see the Lions draft a running back with their first pick in 2012.
The defense is aggressive, led by the indominatable Ndamukong Suh at tackle. Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril are also standouts, with Avril showing his agility with a stunning interception and touchdown Saturday.
No. 1 draft choice Nick Fairley, who has been battling injuries much of the season, also shows promise.
The defense needs help in the upcoming draft so it can be a viable force with the potent offense. But defense seems overrated in the NFL, where the rules are geared to put points on the board at all costs.
It seems the only time anyone's defense gets a stop is when the offense messes up, either with a fumble or badly thrown pass for an interception.
This year's Lions are reaching a higher standard, one that should keep rising over the next couple of years.
Their comeback wins that kept the playoff hopes alive against Minnesota and at Oakland were spectacular, especially that brilliant 99-yard drive right into the collective teeth of the villanous Raider fans.
The Lions end the regular season Sunday in Green Bay, where they have not won since 1991. Don't expect much out of this game, from either team, because it is basically a playoff tuneup. And the outcome will likely have no bearing on what happens in the playoffs for either team.