Ball in Lions' court

Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson runs with the ball against the Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit,...

Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson runs with the ball against the Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., Dec. 11, 2011. (REBECCA COOK/Reuters)

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:13 PM ET

TORONTO - For the Detroit Lions and their fans these are truly the best of times and worst of times.

With an 8-5 record and holders of the sixth and final seed and therefore a playoff spot, the Lions are so close to entering the promised land they can almost taste it.

Getting to the finish line, though, could prove tricky as the Lions have a tough road still to travel.

On Sunday the Lions will be on the west coast to face the desperate Oakland Raiders, who are a game back of Denver in the AFC West battle.

The Raiders have been pounded in their past two games — first by Miami and then by Green Bay — but are back at home where they are decidedly tougher and are slight, one-point favourites to win the game.

In the final two weeks the Lions are at home to San Diego, who may still be in playoff contention, and close with a road game against Green Bay.

If the Lions win two of their final three to finish 10-6, they are home free.

The Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, their closest competitors for the final wild-card spot, are both 7-6 and if they win out could both finish 10-6. The Lions, though, hold the tiebreaker over both teams as they beat the Cowboys head-to-head and have a better record against common opponents than the Bears.

If the Lions win just one of their remaining three and finish 9-7, then it’s a little more complicated and that scenario even brings both the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks back into the equation.

The thought of the NFC West sending two teams to the post-season — the 49ers have already clinched the division — may make you want to hurl but it is a possibility. If either Arizona or Seattle wins out — and only one of them can given they play each other on the final day of the regular season — they would finish at 9-7 and those teams win the tiebreaker if they tie with the Lions.

First up, though, are the Raiders and that is where the focus is for Detroit coach Jim Schwartz.

“We know what situation we’re in,” Schwartz told the Detroit Free Press. “We know that every one of these games is going to be important. That makes the Oakland Raiders more important, because of the situation that we are in. We’ve got a three-game schedule, and a significant portion of our schedule is the Oakland Raiders, and that’s the only thing that we can worry about right now.”

One area that the Lions will be working on in the game is to get their star receiver, Calvin Johnson, more engaged. Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, Johnson had just three catches for 29 yards, the yardage figure matching a season low. In his past five games, he has just one touchdown catch after 11 in his opening eight games.

Schwartz said part of the problem has been the lack of protection given to quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“I mean, we didn’t do a very good job of protecting, and a lot of those times with Calvin, to get him shaken free, the quarterback would have had to hold the ball for a long time,” Schwartz said, referring to the Vikings game. “There’s some where it looks like he’s getting open late. Well, when you’re holding the ball for four seconds when you’ve got Jared Allen and Kevin Williams and (Brian) Robison and those guys beating down on you, that’s tough to do also.”

For the Lions to advance, though, they have to make the best use of all of their talents and their best on offence is Johnson.

COACHING CAROUSEL

With a number of head coaching changes set for the off-season Jeff Fisher, the former head coach of the Tennessee Titans, has thrown his hat into the ring.

Fisher’s agent, Marvin Demoff, told the Miami Herald he hasn’t spoken to the Dolphins, but that Fisher “will listen to anyone.”

The Dolphins fired head coach Tony Sparano on Monday, the same day the Kansas City Chiefs let Todd Haley go. A few weeks back, the Jacksonville Jaguars said ‘adios’ to Jack Del Rio and so it goes.

However, once a team fires a coach during the season they are not permitted to hire a permanent head coach until after the season. That is due to the dog-and-pony show known as the Rooney Rule which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate.

The goofy thing is that the interim coaches on the three teams — Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Todd Bowles in Miami and Mel Tucker in Jacksonville — are all African-American but still cannot be elevated to head coach until they go through the process of a job interview in the off-season.

“Once the season is concluded, the head coaching position must be considered open and the club must fill the position in accordance with the interviewing guidelines,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

That makes no sense whatsoever.

QUICK HITS

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is questionable for Monday’s game at San Francisco due to a sprained left ankle. Coach Mike Tomlin said Roethlisberger is “day-to-day”. Tomlin said Roethlisberger will have to practise at some point during the week if he intends to play ... Baltimore Ravens veteran linebacker Ray Lewis is expected to play in Sunday night’s key game against the San Diego Chargers. Lewis has missed the past four games with an injured toe, with the Ravens going 4-0 in his absence ... The NFL has approved nine-year extensions with NBC, CBS, and FOX, a deal that is expected to be worth $3 billion per year. The league previously extended its deal with ESPN for Monday Night Football.

SEAHAWKS PREFER THE LAND ROUTE

The NFL is an aerial game these days with the passing game ruling the roost.

But out in Seattle where the Seahawks have won four of their past five games to climb to 6-7 and remain in the post-season picture (okay, it’s a longshot at best) they have done so behind the powerful running of Marshawn Lynch.

Over the past six weeks, Lynch has rushed for more yards than any other running back and it isn’t even close. Over that time, Lynch has gained 706 yards on 151 carries for a 4.7 yard average. Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans is second with 573 yards followed by Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens with 540.

Lynch also isn’t piling up yardage against a bunch of weak sisters.

His totals include a 135-yard game against the Cowboys, a 109-yard game against the Ravens, 111 yards against the Redskins and 148 yards against the Eagles.

That’s tough sledding any way you slice it.


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