Since getting indoctrinated into life as a Detroit Lion by then-rookie team president Matt Millen in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, Dominic Raiola has suffered a disproportionate share of disrespect and indignity. In the process, the spirited center has played in as many meaningless December games as anyone in football.
So it's not difficult to understand Raiola's reaction to the drama that went down in the locker-room tunnel shortly before the start of Saturday's clash with the San Diego Chargers at Ford Field, as the Lions were getting primed to end a 12-year playoff drought.
[ Playoff picture: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
In an altercation captured by television cameras, Raiola shoved Chargers linebacker Antwan Barnes as the players took the field, and the two had to be separated. To viewers, it might have looked like further proof that the Lions lack discipline, a sequel to Ndamukong Suh's Thanksgiving stomp.
To Raiola, it was a Homey Don't Play That moment.
"Everyone noticed the shove, but what nobody saw was that the dude head-butted me in the tunnel, out of nowhere," Raiola said Saturday night, a few hours after the Lions' 38-10 victory that clinched one of the NFC's wild-card berths. "While I didn't want to do anything to hurt the team, I'll be damned if I'm going to let somebody head-butt me and just walk away.
"I'm not an angel, trust me, but I did not say a word to him. What was he so fired up about, anyway? The guy has like five career starts – he's a third-down [pass] rusher who's in the lineup because Travis LaBoy got hurt. He's a bum, and he's head-butting a guy who's started 154 games?
"I had said, 'We're not going to get into it with people. This game's too important.' Yet, it's one thing to be smart, and it's another thing to be an idiot, if you know what I mean. That guy was an idiot. And we're not gonna put up with that anymore."
In keeping with a theme I discussed back in early November, following a 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos that included the public mocking of a certain prayerful quarterback, the Lions (10-5) wore their defiance on their Honolulu blue sleeves Saturday.
There was nothing subtle about their dismantling of a San Diego squad that had won three consecutive games, most recently a 34-14 smackdown of the powerful Baltimore Ravens, and still had a viable postseason path heading into Saturday's game in Motown.
In front of 62,469 fans ready to party like it was 1999, the Lions got busy from the get-go, scoring on their first four drives to take a 24-0 halftime lead. Third-year quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 29 of 36 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns, a big-time outing from a burgeoning star, to ensure that the Chargers (7-8) will play in Oakland next weekend with only pride on the line.
That's a position with which Raiola and so many other Lions are all too familiar, and it made this Christmas Eve victory celebration that much more special. Three years after enduring the worst season in NFL history, an 0-16 campaign that included the inglorious conclusion of the Millen era and ended with a 31-21 defeat to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Detroit will pay a much more jubilant visit to the Frozen Tundra next Sunday, with only a slightly more favorable playoff seeding (possibly) at risk.
[ Winners/losers: No. 5 seed could benefit Lions ]
When third-year coach Jim Schwartz winced upon getting a Gatorade bath in the final seconds of Saturday's victory, it wasn't just from the shock of chilly, neon-green liquid streaming down the back of his collar. As mindful as Schwartz was of the significance of this game to Lions fans – it was he who suggested the Stafford-led victory lap around Ford Field following the game – the third-year coach yearns for the day when such celebrations are no longer deemed necessary.
On Friday, when I asked Schwartz about the possibility of clinching against the Chargers, he sounded as mellow as his beloved Jamey Johnson.
"I think that some of our fans have been waiting for it, and obviously we've been waiting for it," Schwartz said. "But … it's certainly not gonna be the last thing on our radar. We still have some work to do – and we've got to get to the point with this franchise where we're not celebrating September wins, where we're not advertising sellouts … when it's not huge news that we're in a playoff run. That'll sort of be the mark that we've arrived more than winning this game or whatever else."
For all the frustrating moments Schwartz's team has endured in 2011, including a stretch of five defeats in seven games between mid-October and early December, the Lions are explosive and dynamic enough to compete with anyone when they're rolling. Schwartz acknowledged this on Friday as we discussed the Chargers' three-game winning streak, in which San Diego had outscored opponents by an average of 36.3 to 12.6, and the possibility that Detroit might have to play at an exceptionally high level to prevail.
"We can get as hot as anybody in the league," Schwartz said. "After the first [quarter in Week 2] against Kansas City, we rattled off  straight points. The second half against Minnesota, and overtime, we played really well. I'm not talking about as an offense; I'm talking about as a team. The fourth quarter against Dallas, we played as well as anybody can. The Denver game … we gave up a field goal on the first drive and then scored 45 straight points.
"Carolina, we started off with interception, interception, fumble on the first three drives. Then we had nine drives left in that game we scored touchdowns on seven of 'em. I mean, that's like freaky, ridiculously good."
The Lions looked better than Derek Zoolander from the start of Saturday's game, as Raiola and his linemates gave Stafford time to shred the San Diego secondary. This was their opportunity, and the young quarterback and his teammates were determined to seize it.
"Did you see the first [offensive] play of the game?" Raiola asked, referring to Stafford's 46-yard deep ball to All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson. "That was our attitude. It was, 'You know what – let's let it all hang out. Let's not play conservative.' The kid was on fire [Saturday]. You're seeing why we drafted him No. 1 overall."
Rest assured that Barnes' relative lack of impact (one tackle) did not displease Raiola, who went to sleep on Christmas Eve still not having processed the franchise's turnaround.
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"I'm proud, man," he said. "It's a long time coming. I can't put it into words yet. I'm just sitting here, enjoying it, soaking it all up. My mind's all over the place, because this is all brand new. I don't think it's real yet. It's gonna be real when we actually see the matchups, who we're facing in the playoffs and when.
"This is new territory. In this past, every year at this time, you're playing for pride. You're playing for the people around you, and you still want to represent the city, but it's hard when you're losing. I remember going to Green Bay in 2008 and going 0-16. It seems like it's such a long time ago. I mean, it's hard to go 0-16. But we did.
"People always asked, 'Why did you stick around?' You know what – I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm glad I was here for all of it, even the 0-16, because now that we're winning I appreciate it that much more. And it's only going to get better around here."
When Justin Tuck pulled into the parking lot at MetLife Stadium Saturday, the Giants' veteran defensive end felt like an interloper in his own home. With the impending game between Jersey-based (and Big Apple-named) co-tenants technically hosted by the Jets, the stadium was adorned with green-and-white – a display that felt jolting, to say the least. "I wanted to throw up," Tuck said Saturday evening after the Giants' 29-14 victory. "That's something I never want to see again." Thanks in part to Tuck and his defensive linemates' harassment of third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Jets (8-7) are now a long shot to make the playoffs, while the Giants (8-7) will host another huge game at MetLife next Sunday – a rematch of their thrilling victory earlier this month over the Dallas Cowboys, this time for the NFC East title. The Giants have won only two of their past seven games, but Tuck envisions his team as a very legitimate contender. "I think we're built for a playoff run," he said. "We've been in situations where we've had to win big games, like this one, and we've been able to play at a different level. The season is a grind, but once you get into the playoffs, it seems like you hit 'refresh,' and anything can happen. Look at Green Bay last year. That's our inspiration right now." And while Tuck is aware of the Cowboys' explosiveness on offense, he's thrilled that the game will take place on familiar turf. "It'll be blue again," he said of MetLife. "It's gonna be fun." … If the Battle of New York hadn't lasted three hours, 35 minutes, perhaps the Cowboys, having lost a chance to clinch the division and with little to gain (excepting ties and unlikely wild-card scenarios) once the Giants won, would have protected the fine china by pulling quarterback Tony Romo. Alas, Romo banged the back of his throwing hand on the helmet of Eagles defensive end Jason Babin on the final play of Dallas' first series and sat out the rest of Philly's 20-7 victory at Cowboys Stadium with his swollen hand wrapped and iced. Early indications, however, were that Romo will be OK for the game that will define the Cowboys' season on Sunday. "I think he is!" a relieved Dallas executive vice president Stephen Jones wrote via text Saturday night. … The Oakland Raiders were staring at the end of their postseason dreams on the final play of regulation against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, but defensive end Richard Seymour came through with his second blocked field goal of the game, snuffing Ryan Succop's 49-yarder and further justifying late owner Al Davis' once-controversial decision to trade away a first-round draft choice to acquire him from the Patriots at the start of the '09 season. And Davis would have loved what came next, on Oakland's first play from scrimmage in overtime: Coach Hue Jackson dialed up a double-play-fake and deep ball to much-maligned '09 first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey, and polarizing midseason acquisition Carson Palmer delivered a perfect strike for the 53-yard completion that set up Sebastian Janikowski's 36-yard game-winner. "A lot of guys wouldn't have made that throw," Jackson told me as he rode the team bus to the airport following the Raiders' 16-13 victory. "That's one of the things I love about Carson. I can chew him out and he can have his struggles, and when we need it most he still makes that play." The victory kept the Raiders (8-7) in play for a possible AFC West title (if the Broncos lose to the Chiefs) or wild-card berth (if the Bengals lose to the Ravens and various other things go Oakland's way) if they can defeat the Chargers at home next Sunday. That game will be played concurrently with the showdown in Cincinnati between the 9-6 Bengals – coached by Jackson's good friend, Marvin Lewis – and the 11-4 Ravens, led by Lewis' former star pupil 'backer when he was Baltimore's defensive coordinator, Ray (No Relation) Lewis. "Imagine that," Ray Lewis said via text. Mindful that his team must win to clinch the AFC North title and a first-round playoff bye, or risk losing out on both to the Steelers (assuming Pittsburgh defeats the Browns in Cleveland), while Cincy is fighting for its playoff existence, Ray Lewis agreed that the game would not be for the meek. "It never is," he said, "when you're trying to do something great."
Speaking of the Bengals, who held on to beat the Cardinals 23-16 on Saturday, how ridiculously sick was Jerome Simpson's acrobatic leap and flip over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington for a second-quarter touchdown? … Saturday's other superlatives included Cam Newton throwing three touchdown passes and running for another to lead the Panthers (6-9) to a 48-16 rout of the Bucs, a game in which Newton surpassed Peyton Manning for the most passing yards (3,893) by a rookie in NFL history and became the second player (joining former Steelers QB Kordell Stewart) with at least 20 TD passes and at least 10 rushing TDs in a season. If Andrew Luck is as good as Newton, the Colts (or Rams, if Indy beats the Jags and the Rams lose to the Niners – or a team to which St. Louis, should that happen, might trade the No. 1 overall pick) will be very, very happy. … Seattle Seahawks halfback Marshawn Lynch continued his late-season run of excellence Saturday and accomplished two firsts against the 49ers, slipping inside the left pylon with 6:41 remaining to produce the lone rushing TD given up by San Francisco this season and becoming the only player to have a 100-yard rushing day against Jim Harbaugh's team (he carried 21 times for 107 yards). However, the Niners (12-3) rallied for a 19-17 victory at Seattle's CenturyLink Field to remain on track for a first-round playoff bye, clinching the game when linebacker Larry Grant – subbing for injured All-Pro Patrick Willis – forced a Tarvaris Jackson fumble with 1:07 remaining. Then Grant went to the sidelines, opened his mouth and absorbed a Skittles shower from a Niners fan, mocking Lynch's customary celebration. … Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow had the worst game of his young career, throwing four interceptions (two returned for touchdown) in a 40-14 road defeat to the Bills to set up a probable must-win game against the Chiefs and Kyle Orton – the man he displaced as starter – in Denver next Sunday. Give credit to Buffalo defensive coordinator George Edwards for a smart game plan and to the Bills' players for remaining engaged after a season-killing, seven-game losing streak. "Seven in a row is hard to handle mentally," Bills linebacker Nick Barnett wrote via text, "so that felt great. We just played our responsibilities, and played hard." … Finally, the Vikings improved to 3-12 on the season with a 33-26 victory at Washington and got commendable efforts in relief from a pair of second-year players, quarterback Joe Webb (two passing TDs, one rushing TD) and halfback Toby Gerhart (11 carries, 107 yards, including a 67-yard burst). However, this day was a giant bummer for the purple-and-gold, and for football fans in general. All-Pro halfback Adrian Peterson, one of the best and most ferocious players in the NFL, took a hit to his left knee on the first offensive play of the second half and suffered a torn ACL and MCL. He'll come back strong – Peterson always does – but not necessarily at the start of next season, and that's a sobering thought.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
2. The fascination many fans and media members have toward cocksure comments before an NFL game – and the insinuation that these words have anything to do with the actual outcome. Don't get me wrong: I welcome such displays of candor and prefer them to the stale, boring, overly careful clichés with which we're constantly bombarded, and I'm certainly not above proliferating a spicy quote at times. I just happen to think these statements reveal very little, if anything, about the pursuit of victory or defeat, and I tend not to take them all that seriously. For example, on Friday I wrote a column about Seahawks senior personnel executive Scot McCloughan and the pride the former 49ers general manager is taking in the success of the team he helped build. By way of illustrating in a lighthearted manner that he was very much hoping that his current team would beat his former one, McCloughan had told me, "They come to our place Christmas Eve, and we're going to beat the hell out of 'em." Gasp. The horror. The horror. Anyway, McCloughan later clarified that he was joking, and Christmas went on as planned. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, there was a barrage of boastful back-and-forth banter between the Giants and Jets in advance of their meeting, and an expletive-filled confrontation on the field at the end of game between Giants halfback Brandon Jacobs and Jets coach Rex Ryan. Interviewed immediately afterward by ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, Jacobs referred to Ryan as "a very disrespectful bastard" and "a big mouth coach … and a big-bellied coach that talks too much, and now he's finally shut up." Since this was an apparent attempt to one-up Jets linebacker Bart (Can't Wait!) Scott, who sounded off to Paolantonio following the team's playoff upset of the Patriots last January, I'm hoping that Jacobs will trademark those phrases and get some T-shirts printed. But as far as whether Ryan's comments – or anyone else's – played a realistic role in what happened on the field? Well, let's just say I have a lot more faith in NORAD's ability to track Santa's whereabouts.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Back in late September, I blasted Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters for getting suckered into an offsides penalty by a quarterback who had no intention of snapping the ball on fourth down, allowing the Buccaneers (yes, it was a long time ago) to clinch a victory. Two weeks later, Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker fell for the same trick to allow the Bills to run out the clock, and we had ourselves a disturbing trend. Well, on Saturday, to borrow from the movie "I Love You, Man," the Holy Triumvirate was unceremoniously completed: With the Ravens trying to close out a 20-14 victory over the Browns and facing a fourth-and-2 at the Cleveland 37 with two minutes remaining, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco barked out the infamous hard count, and defensive tackle Phil Taylor dutifully jumped offsides as the play clock was about to expire. The Ravens got a first down and ran out the clock while the Browns (4-11) got another reminder as to why they're one of the NFL's worst teams. Seriously, what NFL team's huddle in such a situation doesn't have at least one player imploring the others, "Don't fall for that [expletive]"? At this stage of football's development, what with the oversaturation of media coverage and the hours upon hours of film study and instruction, it would seem like that old trick wouldn't even be worth trying. However, as long as people like Taylor keep falling for it, there's no reason for offenses to stop. Why would they? One final question: Does Taylor know that the word gullible is not in the dictionary? I didn't think so.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"They come to my house!"
– Text Saturday afternoon from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, correcting my mistake as to the location of next Sunday's pivotal game against the Ravens.
"Yeah no Luck for us I guess"
– Text Saturday evening from Gerhart – referring to Andrew, his former college teammate (and, in a case of double-meaning, to Peterson, his injured teammate).
"He embarrassed me today lol"
– Text Saturday evening from Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, on Ravens halfback Ray Rice.
"Mommy just called the dog groomer and said 'hi this is theo's mom …' omg"
– Text Wednesday afternoon from my 15-year-old daughter, noting that my wife apparently feels maternal toward our family's pet, as well as our three children (and undoubtedly warming Kurt Warner's heart).
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- Jim Schwartz