ALLEN PARK, Mich. — In retrospect, the Detroit Lions were never as good as their 10-win season suggested last year.
They’re also not as bad as 4-9 looks this year with three games remaining.
Reality is somewhere in between.
If they win Sunday at Arizona — and the Lions are 6-point favorites — they will be 15-15 since the start of the 2011 season, which is just about right. They’re a .500-type of team in the NFL right now.
It’s a long way from the 0-16 just four years ago, but it’s also a long way to the Super Bowl. The Lions are right in the middle of this process.
The difference between the last two seasons simply comes down to winning close games and getting good breaks vs. losing close games and not getting those breaks.
It’s the fine line walked in this league when you’re in the middle of the parity pack.
A year ago, things fell into place perfectly. They won several games they probably shouldn’t have won:
• Rallying from 20 points down at halftime at Minnesota.
• Overcoming a 24-point third-quarter deficit when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo suffered a meltdown.
• Coming back from 17 points down against Carolina.
• Beating Minnesota again by making a stop on the game’s final play from the Detroit 1-yard line.
• Driving 98 yards to score the winning touchdown at Oakland with 39 seconds left.
This year, it’s been just the opposite. Their nine losses have been by an average of 5.6 points, including two in overtime. For the most part, the crazy stuff has been all going against the Lions:
• Center Dominic Raiola snapping the ball by mistake when the Lions simply wanted to try to draw Tennessee offsides before kicking the tying field goal in overtime.
• Giving up both punt and kick returns for touchdowns for the second straight week in losing to Minnesota.
• Wasting a chance to put the game away offensively before allowing 10 points in the final two minutes in the first meeting against Green Bay.
• The blunder by coach Jim Schwartz for an illegal challenge combined with numerous missed opportunities, including a field-goal attempt off the upright in overtime by usually reliable Jason Hanson, leading to another Thanksgiving stomachache against Houston.
• Giving up two touchdowns to Indianapolis in the final 2:39, including the game-winner on a 14-yard pass play as time expired.
• Blowing a 14-point lead after Green Bay scored on a fumble return in the second meeting when the ball slipped out of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s hand.
“We’ve been one play away from flipping our record,” Schwartz said.
A year ago, it was the same thing, different outcome. That’s the NFL. Make a play or two at crunch time and you’re heroes. Don’t make them and you’re considered bums.
“You win games, everybody wants to talk about how good you are,” Stafford said. “You lose games, everybody wants to talk about how bad you are. It’s the nature of the beast. That’s what we do for a living.”
It was wrong to overreact to last year’s turnaround and automatically assume the next step would be taken toward contending for a championship. There were just too many holes to fill on the defense.
At the same time, it also would be wrong to overreact to this year’s regression and completely ignore how far they’ve come in the four years since Schwartz took over.
Detroit fans, understandably, are impatient. They’ve been waiting a long time for their pro football franchise to become winners, contenders and finally make it to their first Super Bowl.
Last year’s rise was such a tease leading up to this year’s fall. Many people are frustrated and think they should start over, fire the coach, fire the general manager and make major trades, maybe even get rid of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
That type of reaction — making big changes just for the sake of making big changes — would be foolish right now.
The Lions made significant progress, they’ve taken a step back, and now they need to go make more progress.
A year from now, if they haven’t gotten back on track, then those topics about widespread changes can be considered more seriously.
But they’ve come far enough — from 16 losses by an average of 15.6 points in 2008 and 14 losses by an average of 17 points in 2009 — to stay the course for at least another season.
What they must do, however, is focus on improving the team’s weakest positions this time in the draft. That’s on GM Martin Mayhew to get it right this time.
The Lions took offensive players in the first two rounds last spring when they clearly should have been trying to do anything possible to fix their defense with their early picks.
Everyone who follows the team seemingly knew that at the time except apparently for Mayhew and company.
As a result, the soft spots in the secondary, predictably, have been exploited late in key games by some of the NFL’s more talented quarterbacks in recent weeks.
So the Lions are going nowhere this season. It’s a major disappointment because the hopes and expectations had been raised so high around here.
Being competitive isn’t good enough, but it is an indication that things can easily turn back the other way just as quickly as they went from last year’s euphoria to this year’s rage, as long as you don’t panic. EXTRA POINT
Raiola, on the widespread criticisms of Suh, including those by an anonymous teammate: “I want him on my team, I’ll tell you that much. He’s a dominating player. He’s everything that I want out of a teammate. He works out. He does what he’s supposed to do, works hard. He practices every day. He plays as much as he can play. From what I see, he does his job.
“He’s very disruptive. Just taking his talent on the field, how he approaches the game, that’s somebody I want on my team. That’s an NFL football player. Somebody who gets ready, stays ready and plays on the field. That’s what he does.”