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DETROIT — Matthew Stafford led a victory-lap parade around the perimeter of Ford Field, high-fiving fans that have been waiting since 1999 for the Detroit Lions to make the playoffs.
With the crowd chanting “Play-offs! Play-offs!” as the final few minutes ticked away, Detroit clinched a postseason spot thanks to Stafford’s three touchdown passes in a 38-10 win over the San Diego Chargers on Saturday.
Stafford appeared to be touched by the face-to-face interaction with fans hanging over the railing to reach his raised right hand.
“You could just get a sense of how much it meant to them,” Stafford said. “It was fun to give them that kind of joy.”
The Lions (10-5) have won three straight after a seven-game slump to earn an NFC wild card, turning around the franchise after it was bad enough just three years ago to become the league’s only 0-16 team.
It was coach Jim Schwartz’s idea to reach out and touch the fans.
“There’s going to be a time that we don’t celebrate getting to the playoffs, but it’s not going to be tonight,” Schwartz said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
No one has been waiting longer than owner William Clay Ford.
Ford, whose first season leading the franchise was in 1964, was handed a keepsake in the jubilant locker room.
“We gave him the game ball,” said center Dominic Raiola, who endured a string of miserable seasons after Detroit drafted him in 2001.
After Raiola’s postgame news conference, he gave Stafford a bear hug.
“I’m excited for them, more than for myself and some of the other young guys,” the 23-year-old Stafford said.
Music blared in Detroit’s locker room, where players hugged teammates and anyone else who crossed their paths. Smiles might’ve outnumbered beads of sweat after a lopsided win that ended San Diego’s playoff hopes.
According to the Chargers (7-8), they were eliminated from playoff contention. San Diego will miss the postseason for a second straight year after making it five times in a six-season stretch.
And, that might cost coach Norv Turner his job.
“I’ve been concentrating every week as well as I can on getting this team ready to play and doing the things we need to do,” Turner said. “We all know that’s something that’s discussed at the end of the year.”
San Diego stayed in playoff contention deep into December by winning three straight games, but couldn’t overcome its midseason losing streak.
“When you lose six in a row in this league, you’re probably not going to the postseason, but we fought our way back in it,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “You’re hanging your hat on running the table, and going to beat playoff teams on the road, it’s tough.”
Knowing they could move into the postseason simply by winning, the Lions held San Diego scoreless until midway through the third quarter, when Rivers threw an 11-yard pass to Malcom Floyd to make it 24-7.
Detroit, though, closed strong to restore the rout.
The Lions and Buffalo Bills started the season with the league’s longest playoff droughts at 11 seasons. Detroit’s wait is over because a decades-long search for a franchise quarterback ended with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
“That’s probably the key to a franchise is having a good quarterback and we’ll hold onto him for a while,” Schwartz said.
Coming off the league’s only 0-16 season, Detroit selected Stafford and kept him healthy for the first time this season.
Stafford was almost perfect in the first half against San Diego, completing 21 of 26 passes for 260 yards with three TDs. He capped the first drive with a 7-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew, threw a 3-yarder to Kevin Smith in the second quarter and connected with Calvin Johnson from 14 yards just before halftime to give the Lions a 24-0 lead.
“His numbers at halftime were outrageous,” Raiola said. “He’s the real deal.”
Stafford finished with 373 yards passing to give him 4,518 this year, breaking Scott Mitchell’s single-season team record from 1995. Perhaps not coincidently, that season marked the last time the Lions had double digits in wins.
The Lions will go for their 11th victory and try to improve their playoff positioning on Jan. 1 against Green Bay, a team they haven’t beaten on the road since 1991.
The Chargers needed to extend their winning streak to four games to keep their postseason hopes alive, but the loss and Cincinnati’s victory dashed them.
They had chances to come back.
Eric Weddle recovered an onside kick after San Diego finally scored in the third quarter, but the Chargers stalled inside the Lions 5. Cornerback Chris Houston broke up a pass in the end zone and the Chargers had to settle for Nick Novak’s field goal and a 14-point deficit.
Detroit’s potent offense quickly gained 48 yards on a third-quarter drive with passes to Nate Burleson and Johnson, setting up Smith’s 6-yard TD and a 31-10 lead.
The Chargers then drove to the Detroit 2 and turned over the ball on downs, firing up its sideline and the fans who have been waiting a long time for a season like this one. It’s the first time the Lions have made the playoffs since Ford Field opened in 2002.
“This is an accomplishment,” Schwartz said. “It’s a big step for our team and our organization.”
San Diego, meanwhile, has taken another step back.
Rivers was 28 of 53 for 299 yards with a too-late TD and two interceptions, the second of which defensive end Cliff Avril snagged with his right hand and returned 4 yards to make it 38-10 late in the game.
Antonio Gates had four receptions to give him 588 in his career, breaking the Chargers record of 586 set by Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner, in his hometown of Detroit in front of family and friends.
“They were all here,” Gates said. “It’s just disappointing that we couldn’t get a victory along with me crossing that milestone.”
NOTES: Johnson matched a single-season team record with 15 TD receptions. ... Chargers LB Na’il Diggs, who had trouble defending Pettigrew, left the game in the third quarter with cramps in his right leg.