All season Lions fans waited for the new coach -- Steve Mariucci -- to make a difference and, in the end, he probably did.
He did not turn the Lions around as dramatically as Bill Parcells turned the Dallas Cowboys from 5-11 blunderers into a playoff team, or as Marvin Lewis turned the Cincinnati Bengals from 2-14 stragglers into a division contender.
In the final five games of the season, however, Mariucci got the Lions to do something they had not done the past two years -- they beat two eventual division champions.
They upset the Green Bay Packers, 22-14, in the Thanksgiving Day game and they upset the St. Louis Rams, 30-20, in the season finale. Both games were at Ford Field, giving the Lions a 5-3 home record for the season.
And, more importantly, the two wins in the final five games -- especially the win Sunday that knocked the Rams out of the NFC home-field advantage -- might have given the Lions and their fans a hint of what lies ahead.
"We're not a playoff team yet -- did I state the obvious?" said Mariucci, laughing. "But we beat a couple of playoff teams.
"I think having some high expectations and certain ambition is good, because that's what we're working for every day -- to see if we can jump in there next year.
The victories against Green Bay and St. Louis were not the final gasps of one of the NFL's oldest teams; they were more like the first breaths of a team still in its infancy.
If Mariucci and Lions president/CEO Matt Millen are going to build the Lions into a contender in the next two or three years, they will be relying on many of the same young players who were responsible for the wins against the Packers and Rams -- quarterback Joey Harrington, running back Artose Pinner, tight end Casey FitzSimmons, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey and cornerback Dre' Bly.
Bly is the only one of that particular group with more than three years NFL experience, but he is still only 26 years old, completing his fifth NFL season.
Pinner, FitzSimmons and Bailey are rookies; Harrington has played two years and Rogers three years.
Of course, Millen and Mariucci still have a long way to go to get the Lions from their 5-11 record of 2003 even to a level where they can compete week in and week out against the quality teams in the NFL.
"That's what is going to be our M.O. in the off-season. Let's acquire the guys that make this team good enough to win the division," said Mariucci. "That's what we're trying to accomplish. Can you do it all in one off-season? No, but we're going to try and make a real dent into that."
Aside from the quarterback position, where Harrington seems to have established himself as the man for the job, there is hardly an area of the team that doesn't need off-season attention.
Start with the offense:
--Running back. Although Pinner showed promise in the three games he played at the end of the season, he is a fourth-round draft pick and it remains to be seen if he has the big-play potential the Lions want. He is not a Clinton Portis.
--Wide receiver. Charles Rogers played only five games in his rookie season, so he didn't get a lot of experience. And two receivers -- Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder -- still have not delivered as Millen hoped they would when he overpaid for them in 2001. Rogers will be good, but not necessarily a No. 1 receiver in the mold of Terrell Owens or Randy Moss. The Lions still need help there.
--Tight end. FitzSimmons, an undrafted rookie, catches the ball well but both he and Mikhael Ricks are primarily receivers. They give the Lions very little help in the blocking department. Millen will look for another tight end either in the draft or free agency.
--Offensive line. The Lions need two starting-caliber guards. Right guard Ray Brown will retire after 18 NFL seasons and left guard Eric Beverly would be better suited to a backup guard/center position than starting 16 games a season.
And there are needs on the defensive side also:
--A pass rusher up front. Defensive end Robert Porcher isn't the force he once was and second-year defensive end Kalimba Edwards had a disappointing season, in part because of injury problems. The Lions' 28 quarterback sacks were among the lowest total in the league.
--Another shutdown cornerback. Bly turned out to be -- by far -- Millen's best move in free agency. If he can land another cornerback anywhere near that ability, the Lions will have turned a major corner in their rebuilding program.
--At least one safety. The feeling is that rookie Terrence Holt has a chance to step into the free safety job next year. What the Lions need is a Roy Williams-type player at strong safety to firm up the secondary.
The two wins by the Lions at the end of the season are definitely a good sign for a team that has won only 10 games total in the last three seasons but they still have a long way to go before they can realistically think about playing in the post-season.