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Friday, December 16, 2011
Ndamukong Suh returns; Detroit, too?

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

There are single days in history that, with the benefit of hindsight, we see altered the course of the sports world.

I'm thinking April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I'm thinking June 19, 1984, the day Sam Bowie was drafted over Michael Jordan.

I'm thinking Sept. 23, 2001, the afternoon New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocks Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of the game and indirectly ushered Tom Brady into the Hall of Fame.

Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh's ferocious play has caused teams to do whatever they can to bait him into losing control.

The next day with the potential to change sports forever?

Dec. 18, 2011, when Ndamukong Suh returns from his two-game suspension and leads the Detroit Lions defense against the Oakland Raiders in a must-win situation.

Hyperbole?

No -- and here's why.

Detroit, the football team, started 2011 by defeating the Minnesota Vikings 20-13 on Jan. 2, ending the 2010 regular season with a four-game winning streak. The next month Detroit, the city, became the talk of the country as the "Imported from Detroit" Super Bowl commercial started people discussing whether the Motor City was actually on a comeback. (The auto industry is beginning to answer that question; analysts predict the Big Three will hire another 30,000 workers for domestic production by 2015). And Detroit, the baseball team, went deep into the playoffs behind Justin Verlander, who won both the Cy Young and American League MVP awards to boot.

All of which bring us to the Lions' game against the Raiders. Win it, and they will tie the Atlanta Falcons at 9-5 and position themselves to make the postseason for the first time since 1999. Lose, and a year that has slowly been building momentum could end in bittersweet fashion for Detroit. The Lions could need 10 wins to make the playoffs, and the Green Bay Packers are the last game of the season. If Aaron Rodgers and company are 15-0 at that point, they'll play their starters and go for history. If they lose a game heading into week 17, Rodgers and other key players may rest for the playoffs, opening a window for a Lions win.

But the Lions can't control that.

What they can control is how they play against Oakland. And in order to win that game, they're going to need Suh to stay in control.

To keep his cool.

To not commit stupid penalties.

The Lions were blown out by New Orleans and barely beat the hapless Vikings in Suh's absence. The Lions need him, more than any other player in uniform, to be on the field causing havoc and disrupting the Oakland offense, not his own team. Suh doesn't even have two full seasons under his belt, but already he has a Pro Bowl selection and more than $200,000 in fines.

As a team, the Lions are fourth in penalties (105), costing them 894 yards, third-worst in the NFL. They don't want Suh to curtail his aggression, but they need him to remember the goal: the Super Bowl. With him, their front four is arguably the scariest in the NFC. They will likely have two Pro Bowl selections on offense in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The average age of that trio is 24. If they can get into the playoffs, then the future is now, not just for the Lions, but for the city of Detroit.

Ndamukong Suh Fans
Detroit fans have been looking for a superhero.

Establish a winning tradition, and good free agents will leave some money on the table elsewhere to join Detroit. Establish a winning tradition, and corporate partnerships that could help get computers in schools, create scholarships and bring jobs are more easily developed. Establish a winning tradition, and residents will open their hearts.

But it all hinges on this must-win game in Oakland, and that win is in the very large hands of Suh, whose freakishly unique blend of power, speed and agility makes him every bit as awe-inspiring on the pass rush as Lebron James is on a fast break. There is a reason why teams try to cheap shot him into retaliating with cheap shots of his own (it's the only way to neutralize the damage he causes). He's that good and he could be even greater.

This is why a decade from now, Dec. 18, 2011, could be viewed as one of those sports history-changing moments.

Suh is at a crossroads in his career. He could turn into one of the greatest there ever was or Albert Haynesworth, who was a Pro Bowler for the Tennessee Titans in 2007 and 2008 but is now on his fourth team in three years. His immense talent has been undermined by a lack of discipline and a bad attitude (and a stomping incident of his own). If Suh can come back from his two-game suspension focused and disciplined, it won't just be the Raiders who are in trouble; it will be the entire league. And not just for this season, offering the promise of multiple championships.

However if he hasn't really learned anything -- if he's unrepentant and unchanged -- well, then it won't just be the Lions who will be penalized. Detroit will lose once again.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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