The steps taken this season might seem like baby steps to other franchises, but they mark a major turnaround for the Lions. They didn't win enough, but they did learn how to win.
"We want to give this city a winner," said center Dominic Raiola. "We want to make this organization a winner. These last four weeks, it's been a different feeling. We have learned how to win. When I talk about this being a different team headed in the right direction, it's finally evident.
"We've won four in a row and we know the nucleus of this team is coming back. We feel like we're ready to make a playoff run. That's our expectation now. We have the personnel to do it."
Gone is the NFL-record 26-game road losing streak. Gone is the 19-game losing streak within the NFC North. They closed the season with a four-game winning streak, the first since 1999.
There were no champagne or victory cigars in the Lions' locker room after the 20-13 win over the Vikings on Sunday. Nobody was in the mood to celebrate a 6-10 season. But there was the feeling that the 2011 season can't get here fast enough.
"This is definitely going to carry over," said wide receiver Nate Burleson. "Six and 10 is not where I wanted to be, but to win four games in a row, a couple against our division rivals, that's huge for us.
"We are all familiar with the woes of this organization. For us to end up where we are right now, to see the maturity and the improvement throughout the season, it's definitely going to help us going into next year. There's not going to be that nervousness or anxiety about what might happen. We know what we can do when we play Detroit ball."
Said coach Jim Schwartz: "We have broken a lot of streaks this year and we've started some streaks. We hadn't won a division game in a long time and we've won two in a row. We hadn't won on the road in a long time and we've won two in a row. We had the 0-16 season and other long losing streaks and now we've won four in a row.
"I don't know if that qualifies as a culture change. I didn't think the culture was bad when we were 2-10. It couldn't have been bad for the guys to mount the comeback that they have. It's more about experiences that we've gained from and having tough-minded players persevered through it."
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Lions established something in 2010 that has long been lacking -- an identity. They have had a head coach, two coordinators and a system in place for two full seasons now and the continuity helped them stay afloat despite putting a league-high 18 players on injured reserve.
They also established some foundation pieces. The defensive line is not only NFL-quality, it is a signature piece of the defense. With a good mix of veterans (Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril) and dynamic young players (Ndamukong Suh, Sammie Hill), this was one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
The offensive line, intact for a second full season, also came together nicely. The Lions allowed the fewest sacks in the NFC and, after a slow start, the run game finally started to churn. The addition of LG Rob Sims and the emergence of RTs Gosder Cherlius and Corey Hilliard helped solidify the unit.
And, in Suh, WR Calvin Johnson, RB Jahvid Best, QB Matthew Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew, MLB DeAndre Levy and FS Louis Delmas, the Lions have a core group of players 26 and younger on the cusp of becoming elite players.
WHAT WENT WRONG: There is no telling how different the season might have gone had franchise QB Matthew Stafford stayed healthy. He started just three games this year. The Lions won the one game he finished and were ahead in the other two before he injured his right shoulder.
The Lions also had to go three-deep at running back. Starter Jahvid Best showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season, but he was hampered by turf toe injuries on both feet from Week 2 on. Backup Kevin Smith, coming off major knee surgery, broke his thumb and went on injured reserve Nov. 20. Veteran Maurice Morris finished the season as the team's primary back.
Yet, the Lions didn't find any consistency in their run game until Morris stepped in.
Also, serious roster holes were exposed, particularly in the defensive back seven. The Lions are going to have to find starters at both outside linebacker spots, replacing Julian Peterson, whose $7.5 million contract is not likely to be brought back, and Landon Johnson, who will be an unrestricted free agent.
Chris Houston proved to be the shutdown corner the Lions have coveted, but he is going to test free agency. The Lions went through five different cornerbacks on the right side. Alphonso Smith, who was injured after making four starts, showed enough to warrant a long look, as did Brandon McDonald.
Rookie safety Amari Spievey played adequately opposite Louis Delmas, but the Lions will be looking to upgrade there, as well.
- OLB Julian Peterson career with the Lions ended abruptly. The Lions highest paid (base salary) defensive player who had started the first 15 games this season, was a healthy scratch Sunday in what was probably his last game as a Lion. Suffice it say, he had run afoul of the coaching staff. "We went with the 45 players we thought we best prepared to win this game and he wasn't one of them," was all coach Jim Schwartz would say about him.
- WR Calvin Johnson (ankle) dressed but never got into the game. He couldn't run on his right ankle, though Schwartz said that if the Lions needed to run an end zone fade play to win the game, he would have inserted Johnson. Johnson will start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl.
- WR Bryant Johnson, in what has been the worst year of his eight-year career, may have given the Lions something to consider in the offseason. After catching just 15 passes in 13 games this season, Johnson had three catches for 49 yards Sunday. His 23-yard diving catch of a third-and-10 pass set up the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. He's in the second of a three-year, $9 million contract, making his status very uncertain for next season.
- RT Corey Hilliard injured his knee early in the third quarter. The severity of it was not immediately known, but he did not return. Rookie Jason Fox, making his NFL debut, replaced him and played well. Fox is a 10th round pick out of Miami.
- RB Jahvid Best caught six passes for 23 yards, giving him 58 receptions on the season. That breaks Roy Williams' franchise rookie record.
- CB Nathan Vasher injured his arm in the fourth quarter. He was replaced by Eric King. The Lions had five cornerbacks active Sunday, none of whom were on the original 53-man roster.
- CB Chris Houston (shoulder) did not play Sunday and will have surgery in the offseason.
- FS Louis Delmas and MLB DeAndre Levy are also scheduled to have offseason surgery on their groins.