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Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 16
Biggest surprise: The Lions didn't think enough of tailback Kevin Smith to offer him a contract this summer. They had drafted bruising tailback Mikel Leshoure in the second round and planned to pair him with 2010 first-rounder Jahvid Best. Smith went home, worked out and waited by the telephone. Leshoure ruptured his Achilles tendon in training camp, Best was sidelined by a pair of concussions and the Lions brought Smith in for a look-see during their bye week. They signed him on Nov. 7, he made his season debut six days later and has provided the Lions a credible backfield presence ever since. Smith produced 535 yards from scrimmage, scored seven touchdowns and is expected to start Saturday night's wild-card playoff game at the New Orleans Saints. I'm not sure that many people thought any of that was possible five months ago.
Biggest disappointment: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh appeared set for superstardom after a rookie season that included 10 sacks, a Pro Bowl invitation and first-team All-Pro nod. He was one of the NFL's most visible public pitchmen during the offseason, appearing in television commercials and countless national interviews. But Suh ended his second season in a much different place, thanks to a year-long debate on his aggressive play and a poorly-timed stomp of Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day. Worse, Suh's play slipped and he finished the season with four sacks and 36 tackles. You can't always judge a defensive tackle by such statistics, but Suh's peers limited him to alternate status in Pro Bowl balloting. Suh has some on- and off-field repair work to do this offseason.
Biggest need: Smith's emergence aside, the Lions will have to take a hard look at their backfield this offseason. Best's history of concussions will make it difficult to depend on him for the long term. Early indications are that Leshoure will be ready for training camp, but he suffered a serious injury that will at least need to be tested before he can be considered a reliable contributor. So will the Lions prioritize this position for the third consecutive offseason? It's not out of the question. Meanwhile, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz will have to take a hard look at left tackle, where veteran Jeff Backus is headed for unrestricted free agency. Will they try to ride Backus, 34, for a few more years? Or do they look for his replacement?
Team MVP: Calvin Johnson had one of the best seasons for a receiver in NFL history, catching 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. The only receiver to match that across-the-board production in a single season was Randy Moss for the Minnesota Vikings in 2003. But Johnson needed someone to feed him the ball, and Matthew Stafford elevated himself into the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks with a monster season that was more responsible for the Lions' success than any other single factor. A late-season surge pushed Stafford to a stunning 5,038 passing yards, fourth-most in NFL history. Most important, he started all 16 games and was the calm backbone behind four comebacks from deficits of at least 13 points.
Breakout: The least-discussed member of the Lions' starting defensive line might have had the best season of them all. Left end Cliff Avril finished with 11 sacks, forced six fumbles and scored two defensive touchdowns on returns. A pending unrestricted free agent, Avril made himself some money -- from the Lions or someone else -- this season. The Lions would surely like to have him back but have a fair amount of money tied up in their defensive line, from Suh to 2011 first-rounder Nick Fairley to veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.