As painstaking as it might be, coach Steve Mariucci believes the Lions are making progress. At least, that was the message he delivered after their 20-16 loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos.
Some of the improvement was obvious -- more running yardage, better run defense and a reduction in the big plays that had been their undoing in two previous losses to Green Bay and Minnesota.
And some of the improvement is probably psychological.
After watching their early 7-0 lead evaporate, the Lions didn't collapse in a heap. They continued to battle the Broncos until the very end, when quarterback Joey Harrington's fourth-down pass eluded rookie wide receiver Charles Rogers, ending the Lions' comeback hopes with 1:21 left in the game.
It is obviously in Mariucci's best interest to keep the Lions believing in themselves, even though most visible signs say they are headed toward a season in line with their struggles of the past two years -- 2-14 in 2001 and 3-13 last year.
The Lions have now lost three consecutive games after beating Arizona in the season opener, and their road losing streak has reached 18 games, just five short of the NFL record.
Their next game -- Sunday at San Francisco -- has some intriguing elements. Mariucci will be returning to coach against the team he coached the past six seasons, a team now seemingly in as much disarray as the Lions. Maybe worse.
A victory against the 49ers would certainly be satisfying for Mariucci and would provide some much-needed evidence for the Lions that they are indeed on the right track.