ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Jim Caldwell launched into a story. He’s been known to do this now and again during his tenure as coach of the Detroit Lions, particularly when he’s trying to explain a point or why he believes a certain thing.
On Monday, he began telling a tale about a golfer at Whistling Straits who was on a run. Then the golfer in Caldwell’s story caught a peek at a few holes ahead and started to envision playing that hole. And his game fell apart as he lost focus.
Caldwell didn’t name the golfer. It’s not even clear how much of the story is true. But his point remained. It’s one of the many reasons he refuses to look ahead at the bigger picture within a smaller week-to-week game.
“It’s more of a mindset than anything else,” Caldwell said. “So I fight against it with everything I have.”
While Caldwell will fight against looking at the macro as well as the micro of what Thursday’s game against the first-place Minnesota Vikings could mean for his team, the reality of it is apparent. It could be the difference between Detroit having a shot to win the division or potentially missing the playoffs.
While many Lions coaches and players will pass off Thursday against the Vikings with the oft-used clichés of it being the most important game because it’s the next one and that it counts more because it’s a divisional game, there is even more importance on Thanksgiving than that.
“It means a lot,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “It’s either a step in the right direction or it’s a step where we’re going to have to fight and hope things turn out in our favor, and that’s not what we want.
“I think we’re taking the right steps.”
A victory Thursday would be the team’s fifth in a row on Thanksgiving, and it would accomplish two things. It would put the Lions within a game of the Vikings with a much easier schedule over the final five weeks of the season.
It would also give Detroit the tiebreaker over Minnesota for the NFC North title, an even more valuable piece because the Lions don’t possess head-to-head tiebreakers over New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina. All three of those teams will be in the playoff picture. Because of those tiebreaking disadvantages, it’s possible the Lions could finish 10-6, tie for the NFC North title and miss the playoffs because of tiebreaking rules. It’s part of why Thursday is critical.
“You understand the importance of the game. I don’t think we’re focusing on how it plays out technically, how it plays out for future games,” safety Miles Killebrew said. “I just know that none of us want to lose. None of us want to lose and this is just one more game where we can go out there and beat someone. So that’s our goal.”
The Lions have won three straight against the Vikings, including a victory on a Matt Prater field goal on Thanksgiving last year. However, the Lions have been in similar positions before and didn’t come through. In 2016, Detroit appeared to have a chance to win the NFC North before losing the last three games of the season and making the playoffs because Washington lost its final game. In 2014, the Lions went into Week 17 with a winner-take-the-division game against Green Bay. The Lions lost, made the playoffs and lost a wild-card game to Dallas.
“This is something that we’ve dealt with. We understand the importance. We understand the situation,” safety Glover Quin said. “We understand what we got to do to get a win and we feel like we are in a good situation. We control what we can control and go out and play our game and win the games that we have to play and look up at the end and we should be in a good spot.”
The Vikings are the last team — at least as of Thursday — that Detroit will face that is over .500 this season. So the Lions should be in a position in which every game the rest of the year is winnable, whether Detroit beats Minnesota or not.
While Thursday won’t win or lose the division for Detroit, it could go a long way to determining whether or not the Lions will have a real shot at their first division title since 1993.
“I think guys understand what Thursday is and we’re just going to let our play on Thursday go out and speak,” Spence said. “This is a game that we really got to have. We’re just not trying to put too much stress on it.
“Just trying to go out and play, play loose and play free.”