For the first time this century, the Detroit Lions will finish with a winning record.

That was clinched after Detroit came back to beat the Raiders in dramatic fashion for their ninth win of the 2011 season. One week after winning a nail-biter against the feisty Vikings, they won another game that came down to the wire Sunday, scoring two touchdowns in the final five minutes to win by a single point in Oakland.

It wasn’t a pristine performance for the Lions, but they found a way to gut it out against a desperate team 2,000 miles from home. And for the deciding score, they traveled 98 yards in only 95 seconds, with their two best players — Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson — stepping up in the clutch. Despite being spotlighted by the Raiders defense, Johnson finished with nine catches, 214 yards and two scores.

With the Bears and Giants losing, the Lions are now two games clear of the competition for the last NFC wild-card spot, which means they’re probably going to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. It’s been a wild, exciting ride.

So why doesn’t it feel as though the nation is rallying behind the former lovable loser Lions? When they started 5-0, they were the talk of the league. Everyone was rooting for Detroit. But then they faded with five losses in seven games, and we sort of lost interest.

In the process, they gained a reputation as a dirty team. There was the Jim Schwartz-Jim Harbaugh incident and the Ndamukong Suh incident and myriad questionable plays. I think it was the combination of shoddy performances and shady infractions that cost the Lions the role of America’s favorite underdog.

And of course, Tebowmania didn’t help. The beginning of Tebow’s run in Denver coincided with the start of Detroit’s temporary fall from grace. But the magic might be back now, and there’s room on the bandwagon. Remember: three of the last six Super Bowl champions were wild-card teams.