For decades, the Vikings have had heated rivalries with the Packers and Bears. The history of those meetings has been marked by dominance by one team or the other. The Packers and Bears have both victimized the Vikings over the years and vice versa. They have all competed for the NFC North title and, since realignment created four-team divisions, every year the division title has basically come down to two or three of those teams.
The Detroit Lions haven't been in that category. Through a series of bad drafts under the watch of deposed general manager Matt Millen, the Lions were consistently among the worst teams in the NFL. Losing became a tradition in Detroit. The organization was so bad that there was discussion of removing them from the annual Thanksgiving Day lineup because they weren't a national draw and fans wanted to see good teams play – even if it came at the expense of tradition.
Those days, it would appear, are over. The Lions have become one of the chic teams to predict as being playoff-bound in 2011 – for good reason. The Lions have won six straight regular-season games dating back to last season and have built themselves up through the draft over the last four years to become an imposing presence and a far cry from being the first team in NFL history to go through a 16-game season without a win (that happened in 2008).
Since then, the Lions have gone from 0-16 to 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 last year. While not a meteoric rise, the most recent trending has been what has so many excited about the prospects for the future. The Lions were struggling at 2-10 last season but refused to throw in the towel and played their best football long after they had been eliminated from playoff contention and could have simply been mailing it in. Instead, it began a roll that hasn't stopped since.
After losing to the Bears on Dec. 5, 2010, the Lions beat the Packers (killing their hopes of winning the NFC North), won on the road at Tampa Bay (which proved to be the loss that kept the Bucs out of the playoffs), returned to Florida to beat Miami and then beat the Vikings in the regular-season finale to finish third in the division – a small consolation prize for a team that has been mired at the bottom of the division for so long. It seemed as though a page was turned for a franchise that has finished no higher than third in the division since 1995. It was a little victory, but it showed that the Lions were playing as a team despite knowing they would be nowhere close to the playoffs.
The momentum built last December has yet to let up. The Lions rolled through all four of their preseason games and won their first two regular-season games convincingly, beating Tampa Bay on the road again and pounding the Chiefs into submission last week. They are one of the hottest teams in the league and are being touted as a blueprint for other franchises to follow.
While Calvin Johnson was drafted on Millen's watch, this team has been built by general manager Martin Mayhew, who has addressed both sides of the ball through the draft. Because of Detroit's long-term lack of success, they couldn't attract young free agents looking to be part of something big or aging free agents who were looking for a chance at a Super Bowl ring. The Lions had to overspend to get young free agents and wait until the good teams had picked through the elite free-agent prospects and sign players that nobody else was willing to invest long-term deals with. If the Lions were to climb out of the ooze and become a viable franchise, it would have to be done through the draft.
Over his first three drafts (2008-10), Mayhew selected nine starters and three key reserves. Offensively, Mayhew has used the draft to add QB Matthew Stafford (1st round, 2009), RB Jahvid Best (1st round, 2010), OT Gosder Cherilus (1st round, 2008), TE Brandon Pettigrew (1st round, 2009) and OT Jason Fox (4th round, 2010). Defensively, he brought in DT Ndamukong Suh (1st round, 2010), FS Louis Delmas (2nd round, 2009), SS Amari Spivey (3rd round, 2010) DE Cliff Avril (3rd round, 2008), LB DeAndre Levy (3rd round, 2009), DT Andre Fluellen (3rd round, 2008), DT Sammie Hill (4th round, 2009). Throw in DT Nick Fairley and WR Titus Young from the 2011 draft, in the span of less the four years, the Lions have added what promises to be 11 starters – a record virtually unmatched in the NFL.
What has resulted is a young team that is growing together as a group. With the promise of more success, Detroit suddenly won't be a destination that free agents avoid like they're being asked to play at Chernobyl. The Lions are an up-and-coming team that was much better at the end of 2010 than it was at the beginning of the season and will likely be better at the end of the 2011 season than now.
The Lions haven't won at the Metrodome since 1997 and haven't been favored to beat the Vikings since 1981. They already changed one of those this week – they are a three-point favorite – and, unless the Vikings can put together a complete, four-quarter game, they may end up breaking the other half of those forgettable streaks.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Lions built team through draft
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