Prior to the 2011 season, it was understood that the Lions' hopes would hinge on the arm of quarterback Matthew Stafford. More than 5,000 passing yards later, the franchise earned its first playoff berth in more than 10 years and appears destined to make another run in 2012.
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A top-five offense returns, buoyed by the dynamic combination of Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who proved virtually unstoppable last season. Defensively, the Lions are anchored by defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and newly re-signed middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, a key piece the team hopes will help improve upon last year's 23rd-ranked unit.
There are concerns, however. The Lions didn't address a shaky secondary from a season ago, and immaturity that surfaced in the form of penalties and personal fouls last season carried over into the offseason, including the drug-related arrests of three of the team's 2011 rookie class. If the Lions can grow up and meet the heightened expectations, the sky is the limit.
General manager Martin Mayhew put the club in a position that didn't require a free-agent splash. Rather, they retained their own players, including starters Jeff Backus and Tulloch. The return of these players helps ensure continuity on a playoff contender.
Louis Delmas is the anchor of the Lions' defensive backfield.
Detroit did lose cornerback Eric Wright (Tampa Bay). Although he wasn't an upper-echelon defender, his departure weakens an already questionable backfield.
Wide receiver Ryan Broyles was a surprise second-round pick, but he provides another weapon for an offense clearly built upon its passing attack. Cornerback Dwight Bentley (third round) will help add a talented body to the secondary.
For the Detroit Lions in 2012, the playoff implications begin immediately. Detroit's schedule features four road tilts in its first six games with the bye week providing some relief, but that stretch includes back-to-back contests at fellow NFC playoff contenders Chicago and Philadelphia. The squad has three consecutive home games beginning in late November, and the Lions finish the season by hosting the Bears and Atlanta Falcons -- making a final post-season push more manageable.
The most challenging aspect of the team's schedule is clearly divisional foes Chicago and Green Bay, however. The Lions have a Sunday night trip to Lambeau Field, where they haven't won in over 20 years, on Dec. 9. It's a pivotal game that is sure to have respective destinies at stake.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Calvin Johnson, wide receiver. "Megatron" changes the complexion of any game by his mere presence on the field alone.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Louis Delmas, safety. If Delmas can stay healthy, Detroit's defensive backfield is infinitely more sound.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
Although their meteoric climb was unprecedented, the Lions must overcome divisional foes Chicago and Green Bay if it hopes to contend for the NFC Championship and even the Super Bowl. Self-inflicted wounds curbed even greater potential in 2011, but if the Lions have learned their lesson, they could be the king of the NFC North jungle in 2012.