NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — Forget next year’s draft. The Detroit Lions have something different to look forward to this December.
The Lions are headed to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
“This is an accomplishment,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a big step for our team and our organization.”
Detroit clinched a postseason berth with a resounding 38-10 win over San Diego on Saturday, and now the Lions can sit back and contemplate any number of possible first-round match-ups. There’s one more regular-season game, at Green Bay next weekend, but Detroit will be a wild card win or lose.
The Lions will be on the road for the first round — and probably for as long as they’re still playing. But Detroit did get to celebrate its playoff berth with a home win and a victory lap by Schwartz and some players.
“Unless something really strange happens, it’s probably the last home game that we’re going to play this year. So our crowd’s made a big difference,” Schwartz said. “We’ve said a lot about how they don’t just go to the games, they participate in the games. I’d like a few less waves when our offense has the ball when we’re holding the lead and we don’t want to get any penalties, but our crowd’s been great and they deserve to celebrate it and that’s why we stayed out.”
Detroit won its first five games and is closing fast as well with three straight victories. After beating the Vikings on a last-second defensive stand and rallying from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Oakland, the Lions beat San Diego in drama-free fashion. Detroit led 24-0 at halftime. There was one anxious moment in the third quarter when the Chargers scored a touchdown and recovered an onside kick, but the Lions’ defense allowed only three points the rest of the way.
For Detroit (10-5) to earn the No. 5 seed in the NFC, it needs to finish with a better record than Atlanta (9-5), which plays at New Orleans on Monday night. The Falcons beat the Lions this season for the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Lions center Dominic Raiola, who has been with the team since being drafted in 2001, was more interested in savoring Saturday’s win than looking ahead to the next challenges.
“I’m just going to enjoy this one tonight — let it soak in,” he said. “This is awesome.”
Detroit’s offensive stars, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, were terrific as usual, and the line gave Stafford plenty of time to throw. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew caught nine passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.
The defense was also much improved after struggling to hold off Joe Webb and Carson Palmer in the previous two games. Defensive back Chris Houston, who has been battling a left knee problem, was particularly active.
“I knew what was at stake with this franchise wanting to get into the playoffs,” Houston said. “It’s December. Everybody’s hurt. I had to go for my team. I tried to go last week but it wasn’t all the way there, so I took myself out. … This game I was feeling 100 percent, no thoughts of pulling myself out.”
Next weekend’s game at Green Bay could still be emotionally charged. The Packers beat the Lions 27-15 on Thanksgiving Day in a game remembered for Ndamukong Suh’s stomp at Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. The Detroit defensive tackle was suspended two games for the incident.
But no matter what happens, the Lions can go on the road knowing their postseason spot is safe.
“Once you get to the playoffs, it’s anybody’s ballgame,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “The city of Detroit needs it. They’ve been waiting on us to win for a while. It’s such a football town and we haven’t been winning, so it’s huge. We owe the fans thanks for supporting us through the ups and downs. We’re there, so just have to celebrate with them.”
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)