After the dust had settled and the sting of the 45-28 thumping in New Orleans had, if not completely subsided, at least found some cushion in the accomplishments of the long season, the Lions knew where they stood.
"We were pretty good, but not good enough," kicker Jason Hanson said. "I think everybody feels that way. But it's a good start after all we've been through. We feel like there's a foundation here now. We're going to be a team in the coming years that's going to stay like this. But, we have to prove it."
Ten wins, the first playoff berth since 1999, the best offensive season in franchise history -- the list of accomplishments is long and some items are unprecedented. Still, the best coach Jim Schwartz would offer was faint praise for 2011.
"It was an important year," he said. "I certainly wouldn't classify it as a good year. Our expectations are high. But it was an important year. We've done some things that hadn't been done for a long time. Making the playoffs was an important step, not only for the organization and the city, but for individual players."
But there is plenty of work still to be done, and that was the crux of his postseason message to the team.
"Any time you are trying to stay the same in this league, that's not going to last -- that's a poor strategy," he said. "You have to start over every year. There has to be a grind to it. That has to be the message. When we left the players today, we weren't saying, 'We just have to pick up right where we left off.'
"There is a danger in thinking you have arrived and we will certainly guard against that."
Among the things helping to keep the team grounded is the 0-5 record against NFC playoff teams (Green Bay twice, Atlanta, San Francisco and New Orleans) and the defensive collapse the last seven games of the season.
"To take another important step, we have to have a better record against our peer group; by that I mean playoff teams, not just the 12 that make it but teams like San Diego, Oakland and Chicago who are right there," Schwartz said. "We're proud of the effort, proud we didn't have any of those lapse games where we lost to a lesser team. We have taken a lot of steps and going to the playoffs was big, but that's not our endgame. It's not the last thing we want to accomplish."
Clearly, shoring up some areas on the defense will be a point of emphasis this offseason. Linebacker and cornerback will be two areas of concentration, just as they've been the last few years.
"We struggled on defense, other than the San Diego game, the last seven weeks," Schwartz said. "How much of that was losing (Louis) Delmas and (Chris) Houston ... we lost a lot of depth on the defensive line and a lot of key players in the secondary. We didn't adjust well to dealing with those injuries."
Schwartz pointed out the Lions were a top-10 defense through the first eight games. And even by the end of the year they were among the league-leaders in forcing turnovers, defensive touchdowns and third-down defense.
But in the second half of the season, opposing offenses started to find ways to neutralize the Lions' defensive line. They exploited its aggressiveness with traps, delays and reverses. They used maximum protection packages, knowing the Lions weren't a very willing or efficient blitz team.
In doing that, they exposed the weaknesses of the secondary.
"We dealt with that this year," Schwartz admitted. "When you bring what we bring to the table (talented defensive line), teams do their best to take that away. You have to find other ways to succeed."
Schwartz was asked point-blank what he thought the difference was between the Lions and the standard-bearers of the NFC -- New Orleans and Green Bay?
"You look at our games this year, we could go toe-to-toe for 30 minutes," he said. "If we can go toe-to-toe for 30 minutes, I don't know why we can't go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes.
"There is still work to do. We have another important step to go. We do not feel like we have arrived."
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