DETROIT — On Jan. 8, 2000, Detroit lost a playoff game at Washington. It was the sixth postseason appearance in nine years for the Lions, but the fifth straight time they'd lost their first game once there.
Little did they know how much worse things were about to become.
For nearly a dozen years since then, Detroit hasn't made the playoffs. Most seasons, the Lions haven't even been in contention. The low point was an 0-16 season in 2008 — but on Saturday, Detroit can put all that firmly in the past with a victory that would clinch a spot in the postseason. The opponent? A San Diego team making its own desperate push for the playoffs.
"We're extremely excited, but we can't let that change the way we prepare," Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "This is a big game for San Diego as well, so we're going to be getting their best shot."
Detroit (9-5) is coming off tense victories over Minnesota and Oakland. The Lions beat the Vikings on a last-second turnover and rallied from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit to edge the Raiders 28-27. After a 5-0 start, Detroit seemed like a solid enough bet to make the playoffs, but since then, the Lions have had their problems — most notably the lack of a running game and occasional loss of discipline on the field.
That will all be forgotten if they can beat the Chargers, but it won't be easy. San Diego (7-7) has won three straight, including a 34-14 rout of Baltimore on Sunday night. The Chargers trail the Jets (8-6) and Bengals (8-6) in the race for the AFC's last wild card spot — and the Broncos (8-6) in the AFC West.
San Diego's last three victories have all been by at least 20 points, but the Chargers face a different type of challenge at Detroit's Ford Field.
"I know what we're going to get," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "They're playing at home, they're a good football team, they've got great speed at home, the crowd and everything. I think they'll be real excited to play."
Turner was Washington's coach when Detroit last appeared in the playoffs. In fact, that was his first postseason game as a head coach. San Diego appeared unlikely to make it this season during a recent six-game losing streak, but the Chargers have turned things around and are still in the conversation.
They could be a tough matchup for the Lions. Philip Rivers has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions over the last three games, and he'll be facing a Detroit secondary that is struggling to overcome injuries. Safety Louis Delmas (right knee) and cornerback Aaron Berry (right shoulder) were inactive last weekend. Cornerback Chris Houston (left knee) played against the Raiders, but the Lions allowed Carson Palmer to throw for 367 yards.
San Diego's Antonio Gates, who is from Detroit, has 584 career catches and needs three to break the team record set by Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner from 1976-86, the final 11 seasons of his 18-year NFL career. Joiner is now the Chargers' wide receivers coach.
"It's hard not to think about it because it's always brought up," Gates said. "To me, when you have those types of accomplishments, they always sum up your surroundings, your teammates, people who have been in your corner and gave you that support throughout your whole entire career. Hopefully I can get it. If not, I think our biggest thing now is to go into Detroit and get a win and still keep our postseason alive."
Gates, who grew up as a fan of Detroit's Barry Sanders, estimates he will have about 100 family members and friends at the game.
They'll be a small minority in a building full of Lions fans who have been waiting over a decade to see their team back in the postseason. If Detroit loses this weekend, the Lions can still clinch a playoff berth if enough other teams lose. Or Detroit can wrap up a spot by winning at Green Bay in the regular-season finale.
The Lions would rather take advantage of a great opportunity Saturday in front of what will surely be a raucous home crowd.
"We have a great fan base here that have, like I said before, been dormant, but they've never gone away," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. "It just takes some winning to get them back."