Lions finish strong, enter offseason optimistic

By Noah Trister

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 3 2011 1:25 p.m. MST

Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson (13) and Detroit Lions quarterback Shaun Hill (14) celebrate Burleson's touchdown catch in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings in Detroit, Sunday , Jan. 2, 2011.

Rick Osentoski, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — After four straight victories to end the season, Detroit running back Jahvid Best summed up his team's unexpected run with a phrase that could have gotten him laughed at if he'd said it a month ago.

"I forgot what it feels like to lose," Best said Monday.

The Lions head into the offseason on their longest winning streak in more than a decade following Sunday's 20-13 win over Minnesota. Despite their share of adversity this season, they finished 6-10, tripling last season's victory total.

And that 0-16 nightmare of 2008? That's well in the past.

"Winning's always important, and it does give some validation to what you're going through and the process," coach Jim Schwartz said. "I think that we have set the table."

In another sign that Detroit is making progress, the NFL released its 2011 draft order Monday. Lions fans should prepare to wait a little longer this year to watch their team pick. Detroit has the 13th selection after making five top-three picks since 2002.

The lower spot is a direct result of the Lions' first four-game winning streak since 1999. They've even won two road games in a row after losing 26 straight before that.

Three different starting quarterbacks won games for Detroit this season. Matthew Stafford played only one game start to finish because of shoulder problems, but Shaun Hill threw for 2,686 yards and completed 62 percent of his passes.

When Hill was sidelined with his own injuries, Drew Stanton stepped in and started the first two games of the season-ending winning streak.

"We were able to do a lot," Stafford said. "It's a good building block for this team, and we've just got to carry it into next year."

Even kicker Jason Hanson, for so many years one of the team's few bright spots, went down with an injury. Dave Rayner stepped in and was perfect from inside 40 yards, making the tying and winning kicks in the victory over Tampa Bay that broke the NFL-record road losing streak.

Detroit still has another big step to take before becoming a playoff team, but even as the Lions were in the midst of a 2-10 start, they were playing close games. The season began with a tight loss to Chicago when Stafford got hurt and an apparent touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson was wiped out because officials ruled he didn't complete the catch.

Johnson ended up earning a starting spot in the Pro Bowl. So did rookie Ndamukong Suh, who finished with 10 sacks and anchors a defensive line that might be the team's strongest unit.

The biggest question mark heading into next season is Stafford's health. He hurt his throwing shoulder in the opener, came back for a victory over Washington on Halloween, then injured the same shoulder again the following game.

In two seasons since being picked No. 1 overall in the draft, Stafford has played in only 13 games, and it's not because the team doesn't want him in there.

"Obviously, I want to be out there. I want to be healthy," Stafford said. "It's not fun for me to sit around. I'm as miserable as anybody when that happens."

Best also needs to heal up. The rookie running back showed flashes of brilliance early in the season but was eventually slowed by a toe injury. He suited up for all 16 games but was limited.

If he and Stafford are healthy, the Lions might finally be ready to put one of the league's most abysmal decades behind them. By winning six games, Detroit equaled its second-best season since going 9-7 in 2000.

"This is a start — 6-10 is not the greatest season, but it's a good start for us," Best said. "We've got something to build on."

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