Lions scoff at us-against-world approach vs. Saints
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – His team is a double-digit underdog. His defense just gave up six touchdown passes to a guy named Matt Flynn, who previously had thrown half that many in his entire career. He's about to face the freshly minted single-season passing record holder.
So Tuesday someone asked Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz if, all things considered, his team's chances in Saturday's NFL wild-card game at New Orleans boiled down to understanding that Drew Brees was inevitably going to make some plays and the focus was containment.
Schwartz looked a bit dumbfounded. Admit Drew Brees was going to make some plays? He wasn't ready to admit Brees would complete a pass.
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"I don't think we concede anything," Schwartz said.
This is the mindset of the Lions, repeated over and over, player comments reflecting their coach's competitiveness.
Whatever happened last week in Green Bay (a 45-41 loss) is behind them. Whatever happened last month in New Orleans (a 31-17 loss) is also. And no one is scared of what Brees is capable of doing, which is pretty much everything.
Is this going to be a shootout, Brees v. Matthew Stafford, the first battle between two 5,000-yard passers?
"I don't plan on anyone shooting our defense out," Ndamukong Suh said.
The fact that almost no one gives Detroit a chance against the mighty Saints was irrelevant. The ugly defensive performance in Green Bay was brushed aside. The feel-good story of the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2000, just three seasons removed from the 0-16 perfect failure campaign, was hardly discussed.
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It's January. It's the playoffs. The Lions refused to even acknowledge that they're the underdogs. They want no part of the oldest and easiest motivational ploy in sports.
"Screw the disrespect card," said center Dominic Raiola.
Usually even favorites find ways to be the slighted, finding that one critic, seizing on that one prediction for defeat. Detroit is trying the opposite approach. It's almost unheard of, but this is how it got here – from the ruins of the Matt Millen era to a spot in the tournament, where anything can happen.
No apologies. No excuses. No trite inspirational tricks.
"There's no one [in the playoffs] by accident," Schwartz said. "We have good players too."
This is a franchise rooted in failure; it has won just a single playoff game since 1957. Prior to this season, it averaged 3.9 victories a season for a decade.
It's been comically bad – it once had an assistant coach arrested for being naked in the Wendy's drive-thru; it once had a released player steal the luggage of the guy replacing him; it once took the wind instead of the ball in overtime; it once, well, it once did just about everything.
That began to change when in 2009 Detroit hired Schwartz, a no nonsense, no quit defensive coordinator out of Tennessee who didn't bother asking why they hadn't won here. He just went to work like success was inevitable.
He's the guy who paces the sideline demonstratively. He's the guy who chased down Jim Harbaugh after a contentious postgame handshake. He's the guy who pushes his players to play right on the edge.
It has led to the Lions being penalty-prone and dubbed "dirty."
It also helped win them 10 games.
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"I know Jim fairly well," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think there's an aggressive approach, there's a confidence that he knows what he's talking about. … You can see steady improvement and everything of what he's brought, not just to the team but to the organization."
On the eve of the playoffs, what the 45-year-old Schwartz has is a team that's equal parts carefree and confident. There were no playoff nerves Tuesday, as music blared across the post practice locker room. Guys kicked back and told each other stories. Playing cards were scattered across a table. A handful of defensive backs debated what truly constituted a folded pair of pants.
There was a lot of laughing. There was a lot of calm. You'd have thought this was old hat New England.
The Lions weren't talking trash, but it's clear they expect to win Saturday, which is how teams should think. Even clearer is that no one buys the nothing-to-lose narrative of a young team making its first playoff appearance.
"I doubt New Orleans is taking that approach," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "You take that approach into the game against us, we'll come out on top … Schwartz, he has a defensive mentality. He understands what it takes to get these guys going."
Such as not conceding even a single completion from Brees.
"Drew Brees is a great player, he's an elite player," Tulloch said. "Yes, he's going to make plays. [But] you've got to have a swag and an attitude about yourself when you get on that football field. You've got to have that mentality that you're the best and teams can't score on you. That's the approach you've got to take."
Schwartz addresses the team at the start of each week, a speech that, the players said, sets the tone. This week it was we belong, so let's roll.
"He's the leader," said defensive tackle Nick Fairley. "We follow his lead."
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Schwartz is leading a team that's motivated by its own sense of self-worth, not by the doubts of others. Brees is a heck of a player, just a little more explosive than Matt Flynn. No one is saying he isn't. It's just no one is going into Saturday just hoping to contain him, just hoping to survive, just hoping Stafford can deliver in the end, just hoping to be Cinderella.
You wait this long, and work this hard, to get to the playoffs, you don't apologize for it.
"It's 60 minutes of football Saturday," Schwartz said.
So Detroit concedes nothing, not even that it's the underdog. Its coach doesn't know how.
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