Unlike the previous two games, the Detroit Lions didn't let things go down to the wire on Saturday against the San Diego Chargers. With a chance to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999, they didn't want it to come down to a goal line stand or a furious last-minute rally. Instead they put together perhaps their most complete performance all season and blew out the Chargers. From the very start it was a one-sided affair, and in the end the Lions were able to celebrate a 38-10 victory and the end of their lengthy playoff drought.
The Lions set the tone for Saturday's outstanding performance on the very first play of the game. Just like we saw last week against the Oakland Raiders, the Lions' best offense is often Matthew Stafford throwing the ball up and letting Calvin Johnson go get it. On the first play, that's exactly what the Lions did and Johnson pulled down the ball in coverage for a gain of 46 yards. After passes to Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson went for 10 yards each, the Lions were inside the 10-yard line. There, Stafford moved the chains on third-and-one with a quarterback sneak, and two plays later he found Pettigrew for a seven-yard touchdown.
The Chargers avoided a three-and-out on their opening drive of the game thanks to a 16-yard pass to Antonio Gates on third-and-seven. That's all they really managed to do, though. The Lions defense made a stop on third-and-one and forced a punt, meaning the Chargers defense had to head back out onto the field.
The Lions started their next drive from their own three-yard line. They slowly but surely worked their way down the field and got into field goal range. The drive stalled at this point, but Jason Hanson nailed a 50-yard field kick (the 50th kick of 50 or more yards of his career) to make it 10-0 Lions as the first quarter came a close. (This drive took 6:30 off the clock and lasted 13 plays.)
Just like their first drive of the game, the Chargers picked up one first down before having to punt. The Lions took over at their own 13 and went 87 yards in 11 plays and 5:16. Stafford got the drive started with a 12-yard pass to Tony Scheffler and later kept it alive with a 30-yarder to Nate Burleson on third-and-19. The Lions scored on a three-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Kevin Smith on the very next play to take a 17-0 lead.
San Diego once again managed to pick up one first down before having to punt, and the Lions once again put together a scoring drive. This time they went 74 yards in nine plays and scored a touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Stafford to Johnson. Pettigrew played a big part in this drive, as he had catches of 14, eight, 16 and nine yards, helping Detroit move down the field to make it 24-0 after one half of play. (The Chargers got the ball back with 31 seconds and were unable to do anything other than pick up one first down before time expired.)
After the two teams traded punts to open the second half, the Chargers finally found some life. They started a drive at their own 43, and thanks to an 18-yard pass to Vincent Jackson, a 27-yard pass to Vincent Brown and an 11-yard run by Ryan Mathews, they were quickly in position to score. They did in fact score one play later on an 11-yard pass from Philip Rivers to Malcom Floyd.
Although it was still a three-score game, the Chargers started to make things interesting by doing a surprise onside kick. The Lions were caught off guard, and after Ricardo Silva failed to recover the ball, it ended up in the hands of a Chargers player. They took over at the Detroit 47 and once again quickly moved down the field. This time a 30-yard pass to Floyd put them in position to score, as the Chargers had it first-and-goal from the three-yard line. The Lions defense wasn't about to surrender another touchdown, though. They forced an incompletion on first down, and on second down they stuffed Mike Tolbert for a loss of a yard. On third down, Chris Houston made a great play to break up a pass, and the Chargers had to settle for a field goal as a result.
Now leading by only 14 points, the Lions offense needed to respond after a long break with a strong showing. They didn't disappoint, as Stafford led the Lions 80 yards in nine plays. The drive saw the Lions face only one third down, and it was capped off with a six-yard touchdown run by Smith. As many people noted, this was a drive playoff teams make. The Lions were losing some momentum and needed the offense to put a stop to the Chargers' comeback, and they did exactly that by easily going down the field for a touchdown to extend the lead to 21 points.
The Chargers tried to respond with a strong drive of their own, and they did put together a pretty good possession. San Diego converted a fourth-and-five and a third-and-three en route to getting down to the two-yard line. Just like the previous possession, though, the Lions defense wasn't going to let San Diego find the end zone. After incompletions on first and second down, Houston made another big play to break up a pass on third down. It was now fourth down at the two and San Diego elected to go for it. Rivers tried to get the ball to Jackson, but Alphonso Smith broke up the pass and gave the ball back to the Lions offense.
Detroit managed to get out to its own 40-yard line and run nearly four minutes off the clock before having to punt the ball away. San Diego took over and again had hopes of making things interesting. They were successful for a couple of minutes thanks in part to another fourth down conversion, but Houston essentially put the nail in San Diego's coffin with an interception at the Lions' one-yard line. He returned it to the 44, which is where the Lions offense took over and ran another couple of minutes off the clock before again punting.
The Chargers were backed up deep in their own territory thanks to Ben Graham's punt dying at the two-yard line. Rivers gave the Chargers some breathing room with a nine-yard pass to Antonio Gates on first down, but it didn't matter after Cliff Avril jumped high in the air and intercepted Rivers on second down. Avril recognized that San Diego was trying to run a screen, jumped high in the air to pick off the pass with one hand and proceeded to return it four yards for a touchdown. The party was officially on after the score, as the Lions took a 38-10 lead and erased all doubts that they were headed to the playoffs. The clock ran out after a few plays on San Diego's next drive and the celebration officially began with Jim Schwartz receiving two Gatorade showers.
As stated earlier, this was a complete effort. The offense dominated all game with Stafford going 29-of-36 for 373 yards and three touchdowns. And the defense played lights out in the first half and made plays when it had to in the second half. This resulted in the Lions pulling away early and forcing San Diego to play catch-up for most of the game. The Chargers were unable to keep up with the Lions and couldn't dig themselves out of their hole. As a result, the Lions were able to put this game away with several minutes left on the clock and finish things out knowing that their playoff drought was coming to an end.
The Lions will now head into Week 17's game at the Green Bay Packers with a 10-5 record. Although they have a playoff spot wrapped up, the Lions could be playing for the No. 5 seed and could even have a chance to clinch it (if the Atlanta Falcons lose on Monday). While the Lions could potentially rest their starters, I think Schwartz will go all out in hopes of getting the fifth seed -- which would match Detroit up against the NFC East champion (either the Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants) -- and in hopes of ending the Lions' 20-year losing streak at Lambeau Field. I certainly understand the thinking behind resting players, but I think the Lions will want to keep their momentum going and try to go into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak.