The 2010 season ended for the Detroit Lions not in dismay. Or disappointment. Or misfortune.
No, the 2010 season ended in hope.
When was the last time that word was uttered in the same sentence as the Detroit Lions franchise? The same one that has never won a Super Bowl, or even been to one?
Sure, the Lions haven't really done anything yet.
Sure, it really was just a 4-game winning streak.
Matthew Stafford hasn't proved he isn't a china doll yet, Nick Fairley hasn't played one down of football, and Mikel Leshoure is out for the season.
But most of the pieces are there, Martin Mayhew has built a hell of a team out of the ashes of the infamous 0-16 team, just two years prior.
Lions fans have faith.
For the first time in years, and it isn't without warrant to suggest these Lions will take a huge step forward this year.
I remember watching this game last year, and, honestly, I believe it was a turning point for the Lions.
Not only did they snap a 26-game road losing streak, but they learned how to close out games. They didn't fall apart in the 4th quarter, like the Lions teams of old, and they did it all with their third-string quarterback, Drew Stanton.
Now, the Bucs are by no means pushovers.
They're also an up-and-coming team, one that almost mirrors the Lions. However, they lost key pieces over the off-season, none more detrimental than linebacker Barrett Ruud, who bolted to that other Florida team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
They added defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in the draft who, paired with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, form a formidable defensive line that could rival Detroit's.
However, it is the offense that makes Tampa Bay a force to be reckoned with.
Josh Freeman is an emerging stud quarterback, posting a 95.9 QB rating last year, good for sixth in the entire league. He is surrounded by young talent as well in Mike Williams, the top receiver in last years draft, Arrelious Benn, a promising wideout entering his second season, Kellen Winslow Jr., no doubt one of the better tight ends in the league, and LeGarrette Blount, a pleasant surprise who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season.
This will prove to be a very compelling match-up between two emerging young teams, hungry to prove themselves to the league.
It will be a very close game, with the two teams going to OT the second consecutive time. But the Lions will end up edging the Bucs on the arm of Matthew Stafford, who'll fuel his team in his return.
Final Score: 27-24 (OT) Lions
Last year they were quite worse than their record indicated. They played only three teams that made the playoffs (a 19-9 loss in Indianapolis, a 30-7 thrashing on their home field by Baltimore in the playoffs, and a 42-24 win in Seattle).
On the defensive side of the ball, their strength resides in their secondary of corners Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, and strong safety Eric Berry, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Their linebacker corps is solid, but they will miss Mike Vrabel, who retired after last season. He'll be replaced by either Jovan Belcher or Brandon Silas, both solid, but not the level Vrabel was at.
The offense has stayed largely the same, outside the additions of wideouts Steve Breaston and rookie Jonathan Baldwin. Baldwin will likely not be very effective this season, as will every other rookie due to the lockout, and Breaston has lingering knee problems, which is probably why the Cardinals let him walk.
Cassel is a serviceable QB but, like his team, overachieved to a degree last season and with the departure of Charlie Weis, we might see the 2009 Cassel. The one who posted a 69.9 QB rating.
The Lions will look to extend their winning streak to six games in their home opener, and will come out fired up. Meanwhile, the Chiefs will fail to live up to the bar they set last year, and will falter in their first couple games.
Final Score: 27-17 Lions
In the Lions first divisional game of the 2011 season, they travel to Minneapolis to face the Vikings.
Last year, the Vikings finished in the cellar of the NFC North, after Detroit beat them in the last week of the season, which also proved to be Brett Favre's last game as part of an NFL roster (hopefully).
It seems as though the tables have turned.
Detroit is no longer the worst team in the Black and Blue division.
Minnesota's quarterback situation is in shambles, Donovan McNabb is past his prime. If last season is any indication, is fully capable of running a team into the ground.
Christian Ponder could be a good quarterback. But the shortened off-season ruined any chance he had of taking over McNabb's spot and Joe Webb shouldn't be the starter for any NFL team.
On defense, the Vikes lost key pieces in Ray Edwards and Pat Williams who's departure will make their run defense significantly weaker.
The Vikings still have a few dangerous weapons in Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Chad Greenway, and Jared Allen, but it won't be enough to combat the balanced attack the Lions boast, and they will ride a wave of confidence into Minneapolis, winning their seventh straight game, and opening the 2011 season 3-0.
Final Score: 34-20 Lions
Now, this game could be Detroit's first real challenge. The 'Boys finished 6-10 and out of the playoffs last season, but there's no doubt that when Tony Romo is healthy, this can be a dangerous team.
Their strength is no doubt their receiving corps.
Miles Austin is one of the best wideouts in the league, and Dez Bryant is sure to have an impressive sophomore campaign, as most defenses will be geared towards stopping Austin.
The loss of Marion Barber might hurt them a bit in the running game. They'll miss his bruising style of play, but Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are both talented backs who are very quick, and Jones has incredible hands out of the backfield.
The addition of right tackle Tyron Smith will bolster the offensive line, and help keep Tony Romo healthy. If he stays on his feet, Romo will lead a formidable offense.
The defense is another question.
While any defense with DeMarcus Ware is bound to have some success, the suspect secondary will keep them from winning some games. They missed out on top prospect Patrick Peterson by finishing 6-10, and lost out in the Nnamdi sweepstakes to division rival Philadelphia.
Dallas will look to it's pass rush to bail out the secondary multiple times over the course of he season.
This game will likely be a shootout, with both quarterbacks exposing the other teams weak secondary early, and often. But look for Dallas to pull this one out in their house.
Final Score: 42-37 Cowboys
Monday Night Football returns to Detroit for the first time since 2001. They host the Chicago Bears, who outright stole the season opener last year on a terrible call that overturned Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown.
On offense the Bears don't look very good.
Cutler is an average quarterback at best, they let Greg Olsen walk to Carolina, and Olin Kreutz to New Orleans, Roy Williams hasn't had a respectable season since 2006, and Matt Forte has disappointed since his 2008 campaign.
The defense will hold it's own, as Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Israel Idonije are all returning. They did lose nose tackle Tommy Harris this past off-season, but it doesn't hurt them too much since he's been declining as of late.
If Julius Peppers can keep up his dominating, season-ending hits (Matt Stafford needs to stay away from this man whatever the cost), the Bears will be in every game.
As you can see so far, I think the Lions will come out on fire to start the 2011 season, and this game will be their icing on the cake, a Monday Night Football win for the struggling franchise will do wonders for their morale. Look for the Lions to be unrelenting Monday night.
Final Score: 17-13 Lions
The 49ers made a huge mistake by keeping Alex Smith in the fold.
The former number one overall pick has done nothing to warrant him holding a starting job anywhere in the league. I believe that Colin Kaepernick will be vying for Smith's spot by this point in this season.
If there was a year the 'Niners were going to make the playoffs, it was last year. This year, however, I fully expect them to finish in the bottom of the worst division in football.
The addition of Braylon Edwards will help, and the quartet of Edwards, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are a very talented group. But off-season losses will be hard to overcome, such as Manny Lawson, Nate Clements, and Takeo Spikes.
Patrick Willis is still hands-down the best middle linebacker in the game today. He is the lone bright spot in a pretty iffy defense that will struggle mightily in the pass rush.
Rookie Aldon Smith will likely struggle into the middle of the season, with having to adjust to the 3-4 scheme from a 4-3 scheme, as well as adjusting to the NFL, in such a short period of time.
This is a game the Lions are expected to win, the first one in years.
And while the opponent is lacking in talent, the test comes with how the Lions respond to being the favorites. Detroit doesn't slip up at home, and thoroughly embarrasses the opposing quarterback(s). Look for Suh to get fined in this one, if he hasn't been fined already.
Final Score: 44-16 Lions
In comes the Atlanta Falcons in Week 7, a team with high expectations for 2011, looking to make their first Super Bowl appearance since 1999.
Matt Ryan is one of the most promising quarterbacks in the league, and he has numerous weapons to play with. Roddy White is in the upper echelon of receivers, leading the league in receptions last year with 115. Tony Gonzalez might be nearing the end of his career, but he can still produce, and should be a favorite target for Ryan this year. Newly drafted Julio Jones is a freakish athlete who could produce right away.
Last year, the Falcons biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball was their pass rush, and they improved that immensely by going out and getting defensive end Ray Edwards.
John Abrahams anchors the other side of the line so that this year, the Falcons should have a pretty intimidating pass rush.
While the Lions are improving, they still need talent at key positions such as the secondary, and the running back position is always marred with injuries. Until they get talent in the secondary, and all their running backs healthy, I see teams like Atlanta running all over them.
Final Score: 27-13 Falcons
Denver is going nowhere fast, and the 'quarterback situation' is a little ridiculous.
Kyle Orton is not a franchise quarterback, nor is he one who will lead a team into the playoffs. Orton was shopped at the beginning of the off-season, but could find no suitors, and is now stuck in Denver.
Tebow may be a mediocre quarterback, but nobody is giving this kid time to improve. With Tebow, at least they have a future that is somewhat bright.
The Willis McGahee signing could be one of the most underrated signings of the off-season. Sure, he's 29 and running back's have notoriously short careers, but he's only carried the ball 378 times the past three season, so he should be fresh.
Brandon Lloyd was a monster last season, catching 77 passes for a league-high 1,448 yards, but don't expect him to repeat that feat in 2011.
On defense, Denver drafted linebacker Von Miller with the second overall pick, who should help the Bronco's struggles against the run.
Elvis Dumervil will make his return this season after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn pectoral muscle. He should be the right end on the line, after moving from a 3-4 defense, where Dumervil often played outside linebacker.
Look for the Lions to run away with this one in the Mile High city, as Denver doesn't enough weapons to completely torch the defense, or lock down the Lions offense.
Final Score: 23-10 Lions
This will most likely be a revenge game for the Bears, after getting beat on national television on Monday night.
It could also have playoff implications, as both teams will be vying for control of the NFC North at this point, and it could be a tight race between the Lions, Bears, and Packers.
This game will be very physical, as all NFC North games are bound to be, but I see Chicago pulling it out this time, knowing they can't afford to lose two division games to one team.
Final Score: 19-13 Bears
The Carolina Panthers are looking to rebound from owning the worst record in the league last season.
They picked quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, which could prove to be a big mistake. Cam Newton has played just one season of high-level, competitive football, and it'll be surprising if he flourishes in his rookie season.
Carolina should still have a strong rushing attack, as Jonathan Stewart is still on the roster and DeAngelo Williams has been resigned. If Williams can stay healthy, he can have a monster season, the likes of his 2008 campaign.
The Panthers signed tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey as targets for Cam Newton, and the offensive line units can be one of the best in the NFL.
The defense rests with Jon Beason. Beason is one of the best linebackers in football, and the one bright spot in a torrid Carolina defense.
The defensive line is shaky at best, and the only solid player in the secondary is Chris Gamble.
With yet another game on the Lions schedule they should be penciled in to win, look for them to rise to the occasion.
Final Score: 20-6 Lions
Green Bay-Detroit is a rising rivalry that could be up to the likes of Pittsburgh-Baltimore in the coming years.
Green Bay is still arguably the best team in the league. Following last season's Super Bowl win, and as long as they don't suffer the dreaded 'Super Bowl Hangover', they'll be frontrunners for the title this year.
Green Bay's offense is extremely potent.
Aaron Rodgers has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and has made Cheeseheads forget all about Brett Favre in a few short years.
Greg Jennings is a premier wide receiver and Donald Driver still has some left in the tank.
Jermichael Finley is poised to have a breakout season after playing only sparingly last season due to injury.
Ryan Grant is also coming back from injury, but must compete with James Starks for the starting position. Starks displayed great ability in the postseason last year, and has all the tools to be a successful running back.
The Packers defense is just as potent.
Featuring the last two Defensive Players of the Year in Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson. Matthews is a just a beast, there's no other word for it. He's explosive in the pass rush, totaling 13.5 sacks in just his second year in the league.
Desmond Bishop is an All-Pro linebacker as well, and forms a scary front seven that includes B.J Raji at nose tackle.
Green Bay also boasts perhaps the best cornerback tandem in the league with Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson. Nick Collins is an All-Pro safety as well.
With all the talent Green Bay has, Detroit has just enough to combat them. Detroit may come out and surprise them in their first match-up of the year in Ford Field.
Final Score: 31-28 (OT) Lions
Detroit plays the last two Super Bowl champions in two consecutive weeks, and while they may be taxing, I see this as a coming out party for the squad. They will show they can compete with the best of the league and be in positions late in games where they can win.
New Orleans will have a high scoring offense every year that Drew Brees is on the field. Brees is hands down one of the best signal-callers in the league, and will go down as the best of this generation, along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Marques Colston is coming off of microfracture knee surgery, so his production may be limited in 2011, but with Brees throwing the ball, any receiver on the roster has the potential to have a breakout year.
Defense has always been New Orleans weak point, but the front office has done a good job in bringing in talent this off-season.
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who, placed next to Sedrick Ellis, will excel at stuffing the run while Ellis pressures the quarterback. Former Lion defensive tackle Shaun Rogers was also brought in for depth.
The Saints will likely play extremely hard in the Superdome, as they will be fighting for a playoff spot in the highly competitive NFC South. The high-octane Saints offense will Brees at the helm will be too much for the Lions weak secondary to overcome.
Final Score: 28-20 Saints
Minnesota comes into Ford Field in Week 14 looking to avenge the loss in Week 3 at the hands of the Lions. The Vikings will likely be out of the playoff race at this point but they will be thirsting to prove that they aren't the worst team in the division.
But it will be in vain, as the Lions win again, and push their home field record to 6-1.
Final Score: 17-6 Lions
Poor Oakland fans.
The team finished at .500 for the first time since their Super Bowl appearance in 2002 and what did Al Davis do? Fired Head Coach Tom Cable. Not to mention losing the top cornerback in the league and the best receiving target for Jason Campbell in Zach Miller.
Kevin Boss will help fill the void at tight end with Miller's departure, but nothing will fill the void Nnamdi left at corner. The Raiders are looking at another dismal year, likely finishing in the bottom half of the AFC West with Denver.
Matthew Stafford should have a field day with the weak secondary the Raiders possess, and the possibility of the playoffs will drive these players even more.
Final Score: 34-14 Lions
Facing the Chargers in December is no mean feat. San Diego is known to explode in the latter half of the season, under the arm of Philip Rivers, one of the premier quarterbacks in the league.
While I believe that the Chargers will run away with the AFC West this season. It's a given they will come into Detroit ready to compete and it's a tall order for the Lions.
The Chargers have one of the most potent offenses in the league, consisting of Philip Rivers, All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson (who will not be holding out for 10 games this season), and Ryan Matthews, who looks to have a breakout season this year.
San Diego retained safety Eric Weddle this season, which was their prime objective, and looks to continue to lead this defense to high rankings. If the special teams can avoid making bone-headed mistakes, the Chargers will be tough to beat.
San Diego had the top ranked offense and defense last season, but failed to make the playoffs. That will not happen this year, as Rivers has set his sights on postseason success for the first time since he joined the organization.
Final Score: 25-17 Chargers
Detroit's 2011 season ends where the 2008 campaign did, in Lambeau Field. However this year, instead of making history as the first team to finish 0-16, they will battle the Packers for the NFC North title, and the possibility of making the playoffs.
This is the game to watch in Week 17, as both teams will fight, tooth and nail with each other, and will likely set the tone for whichever team wins and enters the postseason.
The Packers will ultimately prevail in a battle of wills and will go on to win the NFC North, but the Lions will finish with a very respectable record, and a chance to enter the playoffs as a Wild Card.
Final Score: 14-13 Packers
Final Record: 10-6