NEW ORLEANS -- Congratulations are in order for the Detroit Lions. Graduating from preschool is a momentous occasion for any young pup, and that is where I see the Lions now that their 2011 season is in the books.
Saturday night's 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints should be the last time the Lions are graded on a curve, cheered for their effort or applauded for an accomplishment other than a victory. It's true: No one expected them to beat the Saints, who now are 9-0 at home since the start of the regular season. And few if any will have harsh words after the Lions collapsed in the fourth quarter against the NFL's hottest quarterback.
But after returning to relevance this season, the Lions have earned themselves big-boy treatment moving forward, both inside the organization and outside. Expectations for this team will rise in 2012, for good reason. They won't be celebrated for a winning season or even a playoff berth. With a 23-year-old quarterback teaming with the NFL's best receiver in a pass-happy league, the Lions should neither sneak up on anyone nor have their success be considered a surprise.
"We know we're building something really good," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "We have really good players. We have a lot of potential. ... But this is where we expect to be. Now we expect to go further. We expect to do more. I don't think in the future, people around the league are going to be surprised that the Detroit Lions are in the playoffs. This is where we belong. This is where we're going to be for a long time."
For the old Lions, we would note that they led the Saints at halftime and trailed by only three points, 24-21, as the fourth quarter began. Moving forward, we'll note that their defense -- shaky for much of the game -- got run over in the fourth quarter. The Saints put up 21 points and 192 yards in the final 9 minutes, 53 seconds of the game, running away with a playoff game the way prospective champions always do.
We won't hold Saturday night's Lions to that standard, of course. None of their players had appeared in a postseason game wearing a Lions uniform. No one in the organization younger than 54 had been born the last time the Lions won a playoff game on the road. This wasn't a team that would know how to react in such a situation. That should never be the case again, however.
"It was a learning experience for our whole team," said quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns in his first playoff start but also forced a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions. "We'll be back. We have a confident bunch of guys. Obviously it hurts right now, but we'll be ready to go."
Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson sit at the center of that confidence and the inevitably rising expectations for the team. Stafford targeted Johnson on 15 passes Saturday night despite a Saints defense dedicated to stopping him, connecting for 12 receptions, 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In their past four games, Stafford and Johnson have combined for an incredible 771 passing yards and six touchdowns.
Considering the NFL's shift toward the passing game in recent years, the Stafford-Johnson duo is enough on its own to expect big things from the 2012 Lions. If there is a concern, it's a defense that allowed a postseason-record 626 total yards Saturday night. In its final two outings of the 2011 campaign, the defense allowed 90 points and a whopping 1,176 yards.
On Saturday night, we'll note that those games came against two of the best offenses in the NFL -- the Saints and Green Bay Packers. Moving forward, it'll be fair to ask why the Lions couldn't hang better with the best of the best.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham took his 2011 approach to an extreme Saturday night, sending four or fewer pass-rushers on 90 percent of Brees' drop-backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Lions got some incremental pressure on him, sacking Brees twice, hitting him four times and forcing a second-quarter fumble.
The Lions forced some errant passes, noted coach Jim Schwartz, "but we weren't able to capitalize on those errant passes." Overall, Brees torched the Lions for 33 completions in 43 attempts for 466 yards and three touchdowns.
Schwartz, to be clear, already had moved to 2012 mode when he met with reporters afterward. He angrily pointed at three dropped interceptions, three fourth downs the Saints converted and the Saints' 7-for-11 performance on third down.
"This game was all about missed opportunities on defense," he said.
I didn’t walk away thinking the Lions had botched a legitimate chance to win. I felt the same way I felt heading in: The Lions needed to play a perfect game to beat the Saints in this environment. They couldn’t drop one interception, let alone three. They couldn’t miss a single tackle, much less the dozen or so Saints tailback Pierre Thomas and others ran through. (The Saints gained 92 of their 167 rushing yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information). They couldn’t miss a single opportunity to pad their first-half lead, let alone punt after both takeaways.
I wouldn't expect Schwartz to agree. He is the coach and has been the driving force behind reversing the Lions' losing culture. Next season, I'll be right there with him. The Lions will no longer be an oddity, an unknown quantity or a feel-good story. They enter the offseason as one of the NFL's upper-echelon teams, and it's time we all raised our standards and treated them accordingly.
To their credit, most Lions players are already there.
"I feel good about what we have coming back, but this is a hard one to swallow right now," center Dominic Raiola said. "I'm stunned. One and done. Yeah, it was a successful season, I think. I don't think anyone predicted us to go to the playoffs. But you don't want to hang your hat on this. We weren't just happy to be in the playoffs. We're disappointed right now."
Really? A member of the Detroit Lions disappointed to have lost a playoff game? That's the way it should be. My, how far they've already come. Play time is over.