The Lions' 2011 season was filled with achievements that helped the franchise transition from a perennial laughingstock to a playoff contender.
What it didn't have was a victory over a team with a winning record.
Half of the Lions' 10 wins last season came against teams that finished the regular season 8-8. The remainder of their conquests ended the season below the .500 mark. That's why -- contrary to coach Jim Schwartz's assertions -- his players are calling Sunday night's nationally televised game against San Francisco an opportunity to measure themselves against a team that was within a muffed punt of a trip to the Super Bowl last year.
“We definitely want to see where we stack up,” WR Calvin Johnson said. “We feel like we have a good shot going in. We're a formidable opponent on the road.”
With Johnson ready to test the 49ers' DBs, the Lions have a good chance of getting their first win in San Francisco since 1975. Detroit had the NFL's fifth-ranked offense in Week 1, including a league-best 355 passing yards. Those tallies came against an inferior Rams team, however, and the 49ers' 377 offensive yards against the Packers was an equally impressive performance.
The Lions' and 49ers' defenses are also fairly evenly matched. Both units had at least three Week 1 sacks (Detroit was given a fourth sack thanks to a statistical correction), and both feature solid defensive fronts capable of disrupting a quarterback's rhythm. Despite the Lions' D-line's reputation as one of the best pass-rush units in the league, DE Cliff Avril says his teammates aren't getting the respect they deserve.
“Nobody's giving us a chance [against San Francisco], but those of us within this locker room feel like we can play with them and pull out a win,” he said. “[The 49ers] have all the hype behind them, which is fine. We're used to being the underdogs.”
“If we get the win, people will kind of give us a little more respect, but respect has to be earned,” Avril said.
Avril's and Johnson's opinions stand in stark contrast to Schwartz's view on the impact of beating San Francisco on a national stage. “We don't care how people look at us,” he said. “That's fine for fans and for TV and everything else. Power rankings and all that other crap doesn't mean anything to us. It's about getting the win.”
Of course Schwartz is right when he says that the Lions won't be given extra credit in the standings for winning a national TV game, but his players are also undeniably correct when they say that a Lions' victory Sunday would turn some heads.
In the end, there's one thing that fits the way both Schwartz and his stars view Sunday's contest. An odds-defying win would cement Detroit's place as a contender for a feat that is the unquestioned goal of every member in the Lions' organization -- the team's first back-to-back playoff appearance in 17 years.