LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Jim Caldwell knows what it takes to bounce back in the NFL, within a game and a season, perhaps as much as anyone in the league.
Caldwell helped the Detroit Lions become the first team in league history to win eight games in a season after trailing in the fourth quarter. They broke the previous league mark of seven comeback wins from fourth-quarter deficits set by the 2009 Indianapolis Colts — coached by Caldwell — that played in the Super Bowl.
After the Lions started 1-3 this season, he led them to eight wins in a nine-game stretch.
“The guys have done it,” Caldwell said Monday, a little more than 12 hours after losing a game and the NFC North title to Green Bay. “They’ve been through it. They know what it takes and that’s what we’ll count on. They have some experience there.”
They’ll need it.
The sixth-seeded Lions (9-7) are 8-point underdogs on the road against the third-seeded NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1) on Saturday night in a wild-card game.
Naturally, Caldwell said not to count out Detroit.
“You can rattle off a number of different teams that have gone in and perhaps not had the best regular season that they’d like, but ended up getting themselves in position to really be a factor in the playoffs,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell was a coach on one of those teams.
The Baltimore Ravens lost four of their last five games in 2012, a slump that led to Caldwell being promoted to offensive coordinator, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Caldwell acknowledged the challenge is to get his current players to rally mentally after failing to win the NFC North despite holding a two-game lead with three games to play. The Packers took away Detroit’s chances of a celebration in the Motor City on Sunday night with a 31-24 win Sunday night. That gave Green Bay a 12th division title since the Lions’ last one in 1993.
“You’ve got to shake this thing off rather quickly and you’ve got to go after it,” Caldwell said. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to preach to the guys. It’s a huge, quantum shift mentally, and we’ve got to play like we’re capable of playing.”
Even though Detroit did enough to earn a spot in the playof fs for the second time in Caldwell’s three seasons, it beat only one team with a winning record. The Washington Redskins, who coincidently clinched a postseason spot for the Lions by losing Sunday to the New York Giants, are the only team above .500 that lost to Detroit this season — and they barely were with an 8-7-1 mark.
The Lions are the fifth team to make the playoffs 0-5 or worse against teams in the postseason since the current format was adopted in 1990. Even if the Lions are told facts like those, receiver Golden Tate said they can forget them.
“We do a good job of having a short-term memory,” said Tate, who helped Seattle beat Denver on Feb. 2, 2014, to win the Super Bowl. “We’ve had a heck of a season to earn our way into the playoffs, and that’s all that matters.”
Caldwell sees a group of players, almost daily, who can rebound when it matters most.
“Yeah, they look just like the team that won nine games this year for us,” he said. “Looks just like that. Didn’t turn the ball over. Didn’t penalize yourself out of the box. Did all the little things right there at the end, found a way to win.”
Matthew Stafford is a pivotal player for the Lions. When he plays well and cuts down on mistakes, they usually win. When teams take advantage of his mistakes, the Lions tend to lose.
Stafford threw 17 touchdown passes and just interceptions in Detroit’s nine wins. In its seven losses, he threw as many TDs (seven) as interceptions.
Since Stafford hurt the middle finger on his throwing hand Dec. 11 in a win over Chicago, he has been picked off five times and has thrown for just three scores. During the last three losses, Stafford has worn a custom-made glove that has perhaps led to some passes sailing off the mark.
“This guy has thrown millions of balls without a glove on his hand or without an apparatus on his finger,” Caldwell said. “It’s naive for me to think that doesn’t have some kind of an effect. It does. But does it keep us from winning? No. Did he throw a lot of great balls? Absolutely. … You don’t look for excuses. Excuses are tools of incompetence. They’re used by monuments of nothingness. Those who specialize in them are seldom good at anything else.”
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