Since the Matt Millen era ended, the Detroit Lions have been steadily improving—to the point that they're now a legitimate threat in the NFC, ending the 2011 season 10-6.
If the New York Giants, last year's Super Bowl champions, reflect the recipe for a championship-caliber team, then the Lions have the pieces in place to win a Super Bowl. Detroit has its quarterback in Matt Stafford, as well as a deep and talented defensive line.
The team's downfall a season ago was due in part to a serious lack of discipline. Ndamukong Suh's "Thanksgiving Day Stomp" on Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith was followed by an embarrassing display of discipline a week later against the New Orleans Saints.
Head coach Jim Schwartz has received some of the blame for his team's disciplinary blunders. Following Detroit's home loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Schwartz acted like a jealous kid at recess after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, immediately following a huge road win, emphatically shook his hand and took off running.
As I've said before, I can understand Schwartz being upset at Harbaugh for being unable to temporarily contain his excitement, but the image of Schwartz chasing after Harbaugh like a fifth grader who just had his scooter stolen will forever linger in my memory.
Despite Detroit's lack of discipline from both the coaches and players, the Lions continued their climb to the ranks of the NFC's elite and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
Heading into 2012, expectations for Detroit will be even higher.
Early 2012 prediction: 10-6 (Third in NFC North)
Even if the Lions repeat their 10-win performance from a season ago, Detroit will be in a dog fight for a playoff spot with so many playoff-caliber teams in the NFC. However, there's no reason to think Detroit won't continue to improve in 2012.
Not only will the key pieces from last year's playoff run return to the team this season, they'll benefit from the return of 2011 second-round pick Mikel LeShoure. Combined with scat-back Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith, the Lions will hope LeShoure gives them a legitimate rotation of running backs to take some of the pressure off the air attack.
While the majority of Detroit's roster remains in place for 2012, the Lions were left with a glaring hole at cornerback when Eric Wright signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.
Playing in a division against league MVP Aaron Rodgers, many expected Detroit to address its lack of depth at the position in the first round, but instead the Lions used the 23rd overall pick on Riley Reiff, who was simply too valuable to pass up at that point in Round 1.
After using its second-round pick on Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles, Detroit waited until the third round to grab a cornerback in Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley. The Lions selected another cornerback in the fifth round in Albion's Chris Greenwood. Bentley will be asked to play a significant role for the Lions as a rookie, and it's quite possible that Greenwood will also have an opportunity to see the field early despite being a small school product.
Greenwood is an interesting player; at 6;1", 193 lbs with a 43" vertical, the Lions hope his length and athleticism can be molded into an effective player at the professional level.
Despite addressing the most glaring needs on its roster, Detroit plays in perhaps the toughest division in football along with Green Bay and Chicago.
It seems likely all three teams will compete for spots in the playoffs, and it's possible that the NFC North could produce both wild-card teams in 2012. However, I would expect the Lions, Packers and Bears to "beat each other up" to the point that only two teams from the division make the postseason.
Heading into the 2012 season, a much-too-early May preview of the Detroit Lions would suggest there's definitely reason for excitement in MoTown.