By Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — This is what the playoffs look like.
Chris Houston dousing Jim Schwartz with the icy contents of a Gatorade bucket. A parade of Lions circling Ford Field for high-fives and thank-yous from thousands of hoarse fans. And Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, 11-year veterans but playoff newbies, sharing a long-awaited congratulatory hug.
The Lions ended an 11-year postseason drought in no-doubt-about-it fashion Saturday, thumping the San Diego Chargers, 38-10, to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999.
Matthew Stafford threw for 373 yards. The offense scored on all four of its first-half possessions. And when Schwartz presented owner William Clay Ford with a game ball in a thunderous locker room, all the sins of a forgettable last decade seemed to be erased.
“We laid a lot of eggs, but this makes it all worth it,” Raiola said. “I’ve been to the bottom and, not necessarily back on the top, but we’re playing in January and that’s new ground for us. And let’s go deep. I mean, who knows what can happen?”
Serenaded by chants of “Play-offs, Play-offs” for the game’s final five minutes, the Lions will be either the fifth or sixth seed when the postseason opens Jan. 7-8.
They close the regular season Jan. 1 at Green Bay, where they haven’t won since 1991, in a game that could have major implications for their seeding.
With a win next week and a loss by the Falcons in one of their final two games, the Lions will be the five seed and play the winner of next week’s Cowboys-Giants game in the first round.
If the Lions lose next week, or if the Falcons win out, they’ll be the six seed and travel to either San Francisco or the NFC South champion — the Saints can clinch the division with a win over the Falcons on Monday — for a revenge game on wild-card weekend.
The Saints, Falcons and 49ers all beat the Lions (10-5) this year.
“There’s going to come a time that we don’t celebrate going to the playoffs or getting into the playoffs, but it’s not going to be tonight,” Schwartz said. “It’s been a long time coming and obviously it’s something that we haven’t done as an organization for a long time.
“It’s special to do it at home in front of a great home crowd on Christmas Eve. My kids have that little application to find out where Santa is. He was at Ford Field tonight.”
If Santa was in attendance Saturday, he witnessed another remarkable game by Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in Schwartz’s first draft 2 ½ years ago and the anchor of the Lions’ rebuilding project.
Stafford completed 29 of 36 passes (80.6 %) to seven different receivers. He opened the game with a 46-yard bomb to Calvin Johnson in double coverage, threw three touchdowns (to Brandon Pettigrew, Johnson and Kevin Smith), and broke Scott Mitchell’s franchise record for single-season passing yards (he has 4,518 with one game to play).
“It’s been a long road, that’s for sure,” Stafford said. “For me personally, for our team, for everybody involved.
“There’s a lot of mentally tough people in that locker room. A lot of people have been through a lot of hard times to get to this point. I’m just happy to be a part of it and glad I got to share it with the guys in the locker room. They’re a great bunch of guys and it’s just fun to be a part of.”
Playing a Chargers team fighting for its own playoff life, Stafford got off to an incredible start.
He completed nine of his first 10 passes, including that bomb to Johnson, and had a 146.8 passer rating in a near-perfect first half.
Pettigrew caught a 7-yard touchdown on the game’s opening possession, Jason Hanson kicked a 50-yard field goal late in the first quarter to put the Lions up 10-0, and Smith and Johnson added touchdown catches before halftime to give the Lions a comfortable 24-0 lead.
San Diego (7-8) threatened to make it a game midway through the third quarter when Philip Rivers hit Malcom Floyd for an 11-yard touchdown and Eric Weddle recovered the ensuing on-side kick.
But Chris Houston broke up a Rivers pass to Floyd on third-and-goal from the 4 to force a field goal, and Stafford answered with a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to seal the Lions victory.
Pettigrew finished with nine catches for 80 yards, breaking his own single-season record for receptions by a Lions tight end (76), and Johnson tied Cloyce Box’s team record with his 15th touchdown of the year.
“It was good to put a complete game together,” defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. “There was a little bit of a lapse there in the second half and there was a point in the game where they maybe got a little bit of momentum. But we kept our poise and kept executing.
“We played like a playoff team today. I think this is something that we can build off of and feel good about moving forward and looking at the playoffs.”