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Lions and Tigers and Playoffs OH MY

 

Septeber 7, 2016

 

 

Lions ’n’ Tigers and

playoffs? Oh my

 

A year ago, Jim Harbaugh’s debut as head coach at the University of Michigan was a much-welcomed feel-good story amid a Tigers’ baseball season that effectively had ended weeks before. Now, not even 63-3 season opener – a red-meat victory for Go Blue fans – could push the Tigers off the cover of the local sports sections.

 

Detroit is a baseball town. It’s been that way for more than a century. And so long as they’re in a pennant race as they are now they’ll be the lead story until the season ends. The only thing I can imagine occupying even equal billing would be the Lions starting the season – after coming off a Super Bowl victory.

 

Dream on.

 

Seriously, though, the Tigers advancing to the post-season is anything but a pipe dream. By winning six of their last seven and 11 of their past 14, they’ve drawn within 4.5 games of Central Division-leading Cleveland, and they’re tied with Baltimore for the second playoff spot.

 

But more than the number of recent wins they’ve stacked up, it’s how they’ve won lately that has given this team some serious swag, and the players are basking in it.

 

“I like where we’re at,” said Justin Verlander, who has pitched his way into the Cy Young conversation with one of the best streaks of his redoubtable career. “I like the grit that this team has late in the season. Really, this last week or so it’s been a never-say-die attitude. We’ve won a bunch of games where we were down – some games that we were probably losing early ono in the season.

 

“Now’s the right time to get hot. This is what we work so hard for.”

 

The biggest reason for what seems like universal optimism about this team has been the recent power surge from left-fielder Justin Upton. After a terribly disappointing first four months of the season, which finally got him benched for a few games, Upton is hitting .339 (19-56), with eight home runs and four doubles and 21 RBIs in his past 15 games.

 

Of those eight homers, five have put Detroit ahead and three stood as game-winners – like Monday’s 11th-inning three-run blast to clinch a 5-3 win. Prior to his benching, Upton had three hits in 50 at-bats.

 

One more example of what a difference a year makes: Last September at this time, Brad Ausmus was a dead man walking. Everyone in baseball expected him to be fire. And then he wasn’t.

 

Now, remarkably, he’s among the leading candidates for Manager of the Year. If the Tigers end up in the playoffs, he’ll probably win it. And he’ll deserve it. In the midst of an epidemic of devastating injuries to key players, Ausmus kept his team in contention with smoke, mirrors and rookie pitchers in the starting rotation – three of them to replace three veteran starters lost to injury.

 

While the out-of-town scoreboard becomes more interesting this time of year, the Tigers can feel good knowing they hold the keys to their own fortunes. They have seven games remaining with Cleveland, including four at home in the final week of the season. And their final three games of the season series with Baltimore begins Friday at Comerica Park, which could help them put the Orioles in their rear-view mirror in the wildcard race.

 

It’s hard not to get a bit excited about the Tigers’ post-season chances.

 

The Lions? Not so much, but I’m not nearly as pessimistic as the odds makers who peg the Lions to be a 100-1 shot to win the Super Bowl. Only Cleveland (200-1) and San Francisco (150-1) are worse.

 

Green Bay is the overwhelming favorite to win the NFC North again, with Minnesota expected to be breathing down the neck of the Packers. At least until quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a season-ending injury, forcing the Vikings to spend a No. 1 draft pick to acquire Sam Bradford.

 

Detroit and Chicago are expected to bring up the rear, and not necessarily in that order. But without Bridgewater, the Vikings aren’t nearly as likely to make the playoffs as a lot of prognosticators suggest – so the division race behind Green Bay could get real interesting.

 

Most people expect the Lions to slide backward primarily because of the loss of receiver Calvin Johnson, one of the game’s most dangerous offensive players, who retired. But that also could be the very reason to expect them to lurch forward a bit – if a young offensive line can keep quarterback Matt Stafford off his back.

 

An offense without Johnson will be forced to diversify, making it more difficult to contain. And the Lions defense, with a line as dangerous as any team in the league, should keep them in a lot of games.

 

The Lions completely overhauled their front office, now led by Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob Quinn, who came over from the New England Patriots. Pundits already are predicting that after another playoff-less season, Detroit will turn over the coaching staff. One name that has already surfaced: Patriots offensive coordinator Matt Patrica.

 

That hardly seems fair to talk about before the Lions have played a down this season. They open the season Sunday when they visit Indianapolis – no easy assignment.

 

But I’ll go out on sturdy limb and predict the Lions, as the Tigers have all season, will at least keep things interesting heading into the final weeks of the season. An 8-8 finish is not unreasonable, and with the right break here or there, they could be in the playoff conversation at 9-7.

 

Considering where they both started, qualifying for a playoff berth is a lot to ask. But the Tigers, with a compete-level as high as we’ve seen it in years – have given the Lions a lovely blueprint for success.

 

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