Could the Lions actually contend for a playoff berth in 2011?

Detroit Lions guard Manny Ramirez (L), quarterback Matthew Stafford (2nd L), and their teammates celebrate with fans their victory over the Washington Redskins after their NFL football game in Detroit, Michigan September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every morning I have a routine when I log onto the computer for the day. I read as much NFL content from beat writers, columnists and bloggers that I can, and then I outline story ideas that I want to develop for my own articles.

For a couple of weeks I’ve thought about tackling the Detroit Lions and the possibility that they could contend in 2011. But every time I look down at the Lions on my list of ideas, I bypass them because I believe they’re still a year or two away from competing.

But today, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write about them. Maybe it was because of their impressive performance against the Patriots on Saturday night or the fact that I’m sick of reading about Peyton Manning’s neck, but today was the day I chose the Lions as a topic. And after getting a shocking phone call from an old friend in Detroit, I’m glad I did.

After graduating from Central Michigan University in 2004, I moved to Detroit and lived there for about four years. During that time, I got a job on the promotions team and as a nights and weekends producer for WDFN Sports Radio AM1130. Passing out free swag to people in bars wasn’t the ideal job for a college graduate, but I felt very fortunate to even have a foot in the door at a sports radio station and was more than happy to do the work.

One of my favorite promotional events that I looked forward to every week during the football season was a Monday evening Lions recap show with WDFN host and MLive.com beat writer Tom “Killer” Kowalski. While driving out to the bar and setting up the show together, on-site engineer Albert Dale and I used to talk about our fantasy teams or football games from the previous weekend. When Killer arrived, he and Albert would often trade friendly barbs and I would try to get both of them to bet me on the Monday Night Football game. (I don’t remember Tom ever partaking in my sharking, but Albert and I always had something insignificant on the line.)

Killer was a smart ass but he was funny and extremely likable. He was also kind and generous, and most importantly he cared about people whether his exterior expression showed it or not. He was also a little quirky and it never ceased to amaze me how the big guy always wore shorts, even during the coldest of Detroit winters. Lion fans didn’t always agree with him, but he had a big following because he often told it like it was and yet, he had a way of providing optimism even in the darkest of times (which have come all too often for Detroit fans). He was also a damn fine reporter and always provided quality content, which isn’t the case for every beat writer around the country.

In the middle of writing today’s column, I listened to a voicemail that Albert left for me on my cell phone and I could tell by his tone that something was wrong. Apparently Tom passed away this morning after his fiancé found him unresponsive in his home. The long-time Lions beat writer was only 51-years-old.

When I called Albert back, we both expressed our shock over the news but eventually started talking about all of the nights spent with Tom putting on his show. When I eventually got off the phone, I looked back at my computer screen and saw the half-finished Lions column that I had started.

Yeah, today is a good day to talk Lions football. This one is for you Killer, may you rest in peace.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford attemts a pass during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on September 12, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey

The Detroit Lions should be an improved football team in 2011, but they’re still a year or two away from seriously competing, right?

…Right?!

After watching them completely dismantle the Patriots in their third preseason game on Saturday night, I have to admit the Lions Kool-Aid that some people are passing around tastes pretty good right now. I’m not entirely sold that they can be a playoff contender this season, but it’s getting harder and harder to not like what you see.

Even though they didn’t win the division in 2010, the Packers seem like an immovable object atop the NFC North. And while the Bears did win the division last year, they have some serious concerns at offensive line and receiver heading into the regular season. (The same can be said for the Vikings, who also have a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator.)

No longer are the Lions the doormats of the league or their division. Thanks to the work GM Martin Mayhew has done over the past few offseasons, Detroit now has the pieces in place to be competitive. Led by the ferocious Ndamukong Suh, the strength of the team is its defensive line, which not only does a quality job of stopping the run but it can also get after the passer. The linebacker corps has also improved, as Mayhew has surrounded middle linebacker DeAndre Levy with two proven veterans in Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant.

Offensively, Matthew Stafford obviously needs to stay healthy but he certainly has plenty of weapons at his disposal in Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burelson. Another guy who needs to stay healthy is running back Jahvid Best, especially since rookie Mikel Leshoure was lost for the season after tearing his Achillies’ tendon in practice a few weeks ago.

As of right now, this is how I see the top 4 teams in the NFC: Packers, Saints, Eagles, and Falcons. In that next tier I have the Cowboys, Giants and Bears but if Stafford stays healthy, I don’t think there’s any reason why the Lions can’t leapfrog Chicago (or even the Giants for that matter, who keep watching the injuries pile up).

That said, the Lions’ two biggest weaknesses are their secondary and offensive line. The D-line should help mask some of the deficiencies in the defensive backfield but players like Chris Houston and free agent pickup Eric Wright must raise their level of production if the Lions are to go anywhere this season. In fact, outside of Suh and Calvin Johnson (who are beasts on a weekly basis), the entire team must take it up a notch if Detroit is going to contend for the postseason. Simply put, a lot of Lions will have to overachieve this season.

Next week when I post my 2011 NFL season preview, I don’t think I’ll have the Lions qualifying for the playoffs. Given their offensive line and secondary issues, I think 8-8 would be a very successful season for them.

But I’ll tell you what, they certainly give you something to think about, don’t they?

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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