Experts predict step back for Lions

Many analysts are picking the Lions to finish third in the NFC North and not make the playoffs.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — There's such a fine line between bad and good in the NFL.

The Detroit Lions went from a winless, pathetic team in 2008 to 10 victories and making the playoffs three years later.

You would think that they'd be a popular choice to take the next step and seriously contend for the Super Bowl, especially with the star power of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson.

That's not the case. Many analysts are picking the Lions to finish third in the NFC North and not make the playoffs.

Division rival Chicago — with the return of quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte from injuries and the addition of receiver Brandon Marshall — has become the fashionable choice to surge past the Lions.

"That's fine," receiver Nate Burleson said. "I hope people keep overlooking us and telling us to our face.

"That's not going to do anything but make us that much more thirsty for going out there and winning."

Although the Lions return their core group from a year ago, many analysts don't believe the team did enough to improve itself short term — either through the draft, free agency or trades.

The biggest ongoing concern centers on the secondary, which has been revamped with rookies and castoffs.

There's also a recent trend in the NFL that suggests teams making a big jump up one year often take a step back the next year.

"You don't want to be that team," defensive end Cliff Avril said.

Added Burleson: "We want to prove that we're not a one-hit wonder."

The reality of the National Football League, especially in the Lions' conference, is that they could be just as good as last season but not make the playoffs.

Former NFL coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for FOX, ranked Detroit as the league's No. 10 team entering the season. That's behind six other NFC clubs — Philadelphia (1), Green Bay (3), San Francisco (4), Atlanta (7), New York Giants (8) and New Orleans (9) — which would leave the Lions on the short end for the playoffs.

Billick also had Chicago ranked No. 12, followed by Dallas. In other words, nine of his top-13 teams are from the NFC, showing just how competitive it's going to be for those six coveted playoff berths.

In a separate panel on FOXSports.com, only two of seven analysts had Detroit going to the playoffs, in both cases sneaking in as the second wild-card team. Chicago was picked by two to win the division and by two others to be a wild-card qualifier.

Over on NFL.com, the consensus was that the Lions would win eight or nine games, with three of four writers picking them for third place in the division.

Elliott Harrison, an analyst for NFL.com and the NFL Network, ranked Detroit 13th in the league and eighth in the conference.

Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated's Peter King projected the Lions to have a 9-7 record and third-place finish in the division. He has Chicago and Green Bay tied for first.

"In my 12 years here, I don't think we were ever chosen to make a run at the postseason, so it's nothing new for us," center Dominic Raiola said. "We don't want to prove any beat writers wrong. We don't want to prove any national writers wrong.

"We're doing it for ourselves, for our city and for our fans."

Asked to identify one of the biggest keys to the Lions' season, linebacker Stephen Tulloch didn't hesitate. It's a reason many wonder if the Lions are ready to take the next step.

"Hands down, across the board, penalties," Tulloch answered.

A year ago, the Lions were near the top of the NFL in two dubious stats: No. 3 in penalties (7.9 per game) and second in penalty yards (67 per game).

"If we can eliminate penalties and just stay healthy, if we can just control ourselves, not hurt the team . . . I think we're on the right track," Tulloch said.

Stafford doesn't mind a bit if outsiders have their doubts about the secondary, the discipline and a one-dimensional offense that lacks a running game. He's happy to let the Bears and others have the spotlight heading into Week 1.

"I have no problem playing under the radar," Stafford said. "That's fine with me.

"We're out here to win games. We're not really too worried about what everybody else is saying."

In the end, all that matters is what they say three months from now.