Lions can define first year under Caldwell

Division title, playoff bye on the line this Sunday


GREEN BAY—Jim Caldwell took over an underachieving, talent-laden team that collapsed late last season just when it appeared it was about to experience a breakthrough and win a division title. A year later, Caldwell has the Lions one win away from the title that eluded them last year.

"There wasn't anything we didn't think we couldn't improve upon," Caldwell told Packers media on Wednesday when he was asked to explain the one-year turnaround. "We did earmark some things we know make a difference in terms of winning and losing games. That's being able to play situational football at the end of the ballgame, in order to close the game out, or moving down the field in order to score, to get yourself in position to score by kicking a field goal to win or a touchdown to win. We knew we had to work extremely hard in those areas.

"The turnover ratio was something that jumps right out at you. You know the good football teams are going to be plus-four or better most of the time. There may be an outlier here or there but, for the most part, that's the way it's been. It's historically kind of been somewhere in that ballpark. And a team that didn't beat themselves obviously was key. Those are the things we looked at. The attitude and appetite for winning, and all of those things had to be increased as well, although we were fortunate to have a lot of veteran guys here that certainly knew how to work. That itself was great and very important."

So, Caldwell's Lions come to Lambeau Field this week tied for the NFC North lead with the Packers, each at 11-4. The division title and a bye for the first round of the playoffs are on the line in this regular-season finale.

How successful has Caldwell been in achieving his goals? Well, the Lions are plus-six in the takeaways/giveaways category, and they've won four games by two or fewer points. They've found the consistency they previously lacked on defense – the Lions are No. 2 overall and No. 1 against the run – and they're on a four-game winning streak and playing their best football of the season when it counts the most.

"We'll never get satisfied. You know that. With us, we feel our best football is still ahead of us. We haven't been as consistent as we'd like to be across the board, although we've been pretty gritty and had some big wins along the way. It's this time of year that makes a difference. This is where you prove yourself. You demonstrate what kind of football team you are. You hope you've grown and developed throughout the early part of the year. Now, it's time to show what you're made of," Caldwell said.

Did he think it could happen this quickly?

"I always make the statement, 'I have patience, but I don't have a whole lot of time.' Even before I had a chance to talk to any players, we came here to win, and not to wait. It was going to be a three-year process and we said right now. I think we came in with that attitude, and I think our coaches and players accepted that and went about the task of just trying to get that done," Caldwell added.

"I think we're playing great team football," quarterback Matt Stafford said. "The defense has done a great job of keeping the score down. We're getting back healthy. We've been able to find ways to win."

Stafford isn't having a statistically great year – he's thrown 19 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and brings an 85.4 passer rating into Sunday's game – but he's traded stats for wins.

"I think he's an extremely consistent personality. You know exactly what you're going to get day in and day out, whether you play good or play bad. He's a guy who's driving home his message, which is playing smart, tough, physical football, playing fast no matter the circumstances. That part has been great for us," Stafford said of his head coach.

Sunday's outcome will define Caldwell's first year as Lions coach.

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