ALLEN PARK, Mich. — For the second time in three years, the Detroit Lions are making a legitimate push for the playoffs.
Receiver Nate Burleson notices a difference this time around.
“There’s a little more calm to us. In 2011, we were young and reckless at times, a little immature in certain places,” Burleson said. “We’re just as hungry, ready to prove ourselves week in, week out against whoever is in front of us, but there’s a calm because we know that this is a long journey.”
When the Lions made the postseason at the end of the 2011 season — their first appearance in a dozen years — they looked like one of the league’s up-and-coming franchises, but they followed that up with a 4-12 showing. Now, Detroit is in first place in the NFC North, and the Lions are hoping they’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.
When Detroit started the 2011 season 5-0, it looked like the Lions were making an immediate jump after years of almost total futility. Perhaps that was too quick a rise. The team leveled off after that, and although a 10-6 mark was enough to make the postseason, Detroit looked shaky by the end of the season.
“I think that year we went to the playoffs, I felt like we were a good team. I’ll be honest, I felt like a lot of it was individual play,” offensive lineman Rob Sims said. “This is different. This is legit. This is a team.”
Last weekend, star receiver Calvin Johnson was held under 100 yards, and Matthew Stafford threw for only 219. The Lions held on anyway to win 21-19 over the Chicago Bears.
Has Detroit matured? That’s hard to say. The Lions still committed a couple penalties on Chicago’s final drive that could have been devastating, but the Bears fell short anyway when Detroit stopped a 2-point conversion attempt.
Perhaps the best sign for the Lions (6-3) has been their ability to win on the road. They’re 3-2 this season going into Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh — Detroit has victories at Washington, Cleveland and Chicago.
“You can’t get rattled on the road. I think a lot of that goes to the quarterback,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “Matt’s got a lot of experience playing on the road. He doesn’t panic when the crowd gets against him or when something happens.”
Of course, each road game brings a new challenge. The Lions have not won at Pittsburgh since 1955.
“We’re 3-2 on the road,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think that’s very much to puff our chest out about.”
The schedule the rest of the way looks favorable, and the Lions are hoping this will be different than 2011, when they may have peaked in September.
“When you win, people start feeding your ego,” Burleson said. “You can’t listen to that. The same people that are on the bandwagon now were off it a month ago.”
Schwartz says he’s noticed that his team is doing a better job handling success than in the past. When the Lions did make the playoffs two seasons ago, their next offseason was full of off-field problems. This year has been quieter, and Sims is hopeful that Detroit is becoming more consistent after all the ups and downs the Lions have gone through.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said. “Our culture here is kind of like, just full steam ahead. No matter what goes on, if you have success or you mess up, everybody’s just like, in the zone kind of.”