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Detroit started this season 5-0 before a rough stretch that left the Lions in the thick of a tough race for a wild card spot. In its last two games, Detroit held off Minnesota, then rallied to beat Oakland.

Now the Lions (9-5) face the surging Chargers (7-7), who have won three straight to boost their own playoff hopes.

“This is what every professional football player plays for, and I’ve never gotten a chance to do it,” Raiola said. “We’re a playoff-caliber team and so are they, and this is going to be tough.”

On the verge of a major milestone in their rebuilding process, the Lions are trying to keep an even keel. Earlier this season, they hosted a Monday night game _ another rarity _ so this team is becoming just a bit used to the spotlight.

“We know the history, and we know that guys like Dom and Jeff have been part of a lot of tough years, so we’re thrilled for them,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “The key is that they are excited about where we are, but they aren’t satisfied. They want to finish this off.”

If Detroit does win Saturday, maybe then Backus and Raiola will have a chance to reflect a little more and put this season in perspective. For now, the Lions have an important game to prepare for _ in late December.

In a way, that says it all.

“I’m proud to be a Detroit Lion,” Backus said. “I take a lot of pride in what we do here and the emphasis we’ve had on trying to get it turned around, and things are starting to pay off. We’ve just got to finish it out the right way.”