Detroit Lions: 10 Best Moments of the 2011 Season
The bad news, of course, is that the Detroit Lions are out of the playoffs and won't be winning a Super Bowl this year.
The good news is that they look closer than they've ever been to that elusive top tier of the NFL, and a retrospective of the best things that happened this season is easier than it usually is.
In fact, it'll be harder to write the next one ("Worst Moments of the Season," coming later this week) than it will be to write this one.
So for the first time in a long time, there's more good than bad to talk about at the end of the season. Even without a playoff win, that's undeniable progress.
So let's take a feel-good trip through the best moments of the 2011 season, before we start gearing up for 2012.
10. Signing Stephen Tulloch
With as much good stuff as the Lions did in the regular season, they started the season off right by bringing in Stephen Tulloch in the short, panicky offseason period.
Tulloch led the Lions in tackles this year, and they were good tackles. Tulloch made plays for the Lions all season and was easily the most important addition to the entire team.
Of course, Tulloch appeared to be due a big payday, and he apparently didn't find the long-term deal he was looking for, which is why he signed a one-year deal with the Lions.
Hopefully Tulloch sticks around, but the simple fact that he chose to spend a year with the Lions to improve his stock speaks volumes to the changed perception of the Detroit Lions.
9. Demolishing the Chiefs 48-3 in the Home Opener
In a way, this is the game that set the tone for the entire season.
After a shaky win to the Tampa Bay Bucs to open the season, the Lions came home and whipped a 10-win team into submission (okay, they turned out to be a 7-9 team, but still....).
It was a laugher, and the Lions were on the right side of it. This win sent them to 2-0, on the way to 5-0 start, and it got a lot of people believing in the team.
Some of those people might even have been in the Lions' locker room.
8. Kevin Smith Returns
Admittedly, it was a series of very bad things that brought Kevin Smith back to Detroit.
But Smith was effective and his return to the Lions from being out of the league entirely ended up being one of the best stories of the season.
For a guy that got drafted into 0-16 only to be cut before the Lions finally turn it around, Smith deserved to revel in some of the Lions' success this year.
Hopefully, he hangs around next season so he can be around when the real fun begins.
7. "Tebowing" Tebow
It was controversial. It was borderline. And it was hilarious.
And at this point, with the season over and nothing more on the line for another nine months, let's look back at this and speak frankly about it.
Was it the classiest thing Stephen Tulloch could have done? Of course not. He could have helped Tebow up after the sack, like Ndamukong Suh did for Drew Brees last weekend.
But Tebow-mania was running rampant at the time, and "Tebowing" had become a new internet meme.
And so Tulloch got an opportunity to plank in front of the original planker, basically. Some laughed, some were outraged, and just about everyone forgot about it within a week, including Tebow, who quelled the issue immediately by calling it what it was.
"He was just celebrating, having fun with his teammates and I don't take offense to that," Tebow said after after the game.
Since then, the verbal shots at Tebow (many of them a bit cheap, some even from teams that he's beat) have only intensified. But that has since become its own issue, and any criticism of his play should, for now, get a reprieve after his first playoff win.
But back to the issue at hand. For the Lions this game wasn't about Tebow, much less one sack among many embarrassing moments for him.
It was about the Lions bouncing back from a short losing snap with a beatdown so severe, it sent the Broncos back to a college offense.
Which, incidentally, nobody has really been able to do anything about since.
6. Leading the Saints 14-10 at Halftime
This is perhaps the last moral victory I will accept for the Lions. The age of moral victories ended on Saturday.
But at halftime, Lions fans were feeling pretty good. They were leading the Saints 14-10 and eliminated all doubt as to whether they were a legitimate playoff team.
Obviously, they couldn't keep pace with the Saints, who completely owned the Lions in the "halftime adjustments" category.
But halftime was the first time all week that I thought the Lions could win this game.
It was also the first time the Lions had held a lead in a playoff game since 1994.
I'll keep saying it all week, folks: that's progress. The only reason this spot isn't higher is because they lost.
This year, that's okay. Next year, the expectation will be to win. Every game.
5. Back-to-Back Comebacks Against the Vikings and Cowboys
So here is my interpretation of the perception leading up to and through the Lions-Cowboys game in Week 4.
"Lions are 3-0! What a great comeback win over the Vikings!"
"The Vikings are winless this season. The Cowboys game is the first real test of the season. Are they for real?"
"Well, Lions are down 24. Maybe these are the real Lions after all."
"WHAT JUST HAPPENED?"
When the Lions went down by 24 to the Cowboys, a lot of people were off the bandwagon by halftime. Those people felt pretty silly when the Lions came back to win it 34-30.
These games combined were perhaps the two that let everyone know that we were watching new Lions. Rather than finding a way to lose when in control, this year's Lions found a way to win when all seemed lost.
4. Monday Night Beatdown
My greatest fear heading into this season was that the Lions would get their first national primetime game in a decade and lose in a blowout.
Instead, they won the game in a 24-13 beatdown that wasn't nearly as close as the score implies.
The crazy Ford Field crowd forced the Bears into nine false starts in the game and they never really appeared to get into any sort of rhythm.
This capped a nine-game winning streak for the Lions, dating back to the last season, and put the Lions in the conversation with the Packers as "best team in the NFL," at least for a week.
This was almost the high point of the season, and indeed, it would have been if the Lions hadn't come so far.
But they have, which means this big win was only number four.
3. Getting Flexed to Sunday Night
This one is a mixed bag. The eventual outcome of this game was among the lowest points of the season.
But the fact that the Lions were flexed into it was an undeniable high moment.
It was better than getting the Monday Night Football game. Those games are doled out because of preseason perception. That's nice and all, but flex scheduling happens as a result of real, tangible, in-season performance.
The Lions got their second primetime game of the season simply as a result of playing outstanding football. They were a good football team going up against another good football team and the league office considered it the best matchup of the week.
And if not for the Lions mistaking penalty yards for points in the game, it may well have been a very close game.
2. Stafford and Johnson Beat the Raiders
If the Lions had lost this game, it would have put a serious dent in the Lions' playoff hopes.
And when Matthew Stafford fumbled away a touchdown to dig a 13-point deficit with half the fourth quarter left, it looked like they would.
The only ones who didn't get deflated by the play were the Lions themselves.
For Stafford and Calvin Johnson, it just meant it was time to get to work. And so the Lions erased a double-digit deficit, once again, in dramatic fashion.
Stafford finished the game with 391 yards and four touchdowns, Johnson finished with nine catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns. And those video game numbers would be replicated several times to close out the season, basically solidifying Stafford-Johnson as the dominant connection in football.
But this game only set the table for the real high point of the season.
1. Lions Beat Down the Chargers, Earn First Playoff Berth Since 1999
It's too bad that this is the high point of the season, when it could have been last weekend. Or next weekend. Or Super Bowl weekend.
But the Lions were not that team this year, not yet. They got beat by a better team playing better football.
Of course, the same could be said about the San Diego Chargers in Week 16. The Chargers were on their traditional December winning streak, and trying to steal a late playoff spot. The Lions needed a win to lock up theirs.
The Chargers were scoring about five hundred points a game, and the Lions had just required a miracle comeback to beat the Raiders.
And it turned out to be the perhaps the most complete, lopsided game the Lions played all season. The Lions took three penalties for eight yards, moved the ball at will and were basically able to coast to a playoff berth after taking all the wind out of the Chargers' sails.
It was the biggest win of the season on all counts. The Lions beat a team on a roll, with a total team effort, to earn a playoff spot.
It was win-and-in, and the Lions took control of their destiny in a big way.
Sadly, it was the last win of the season for the Lions, but unlike the last win in most seasons, this one meant something other than a moral victory. You could argue that it ushered in a new era for the Lions.
Even though the Lions lost in the wild-card round, that just means they're one of 31 other teams that aren't going to win the Super Bowl this year. But they've improved year over year under this regime, and there is no reason to believe that improvement won't continue.
The big hump for the Lions to get over this year was making the playoffs. They did that in this game.
The big one for next year? Getting there and winning.