|Donna McWilliam / Associated Press|
|If the Lions can keep Matthew Stafford healthy next year, they could very well contend for the postseason.|
The Detroit Lions are on a roll. A small one, perhaps, but a roll nonetheless.
They own a three-game winning streak that includes two victories against teams in playoff contention, with the last two wins on the road.
Still, coach Jim Schwartz is leery about drawing too many conclusions from this late surge, especially as it applies to his team's fortunes in 2011.
After all, he hasn't forgotten that the Lions began the season 2-10. And even though he's about to finish only his second year at the Lions' helm, Schwartz has been in the NFL long enough (18 seasons, including eight as Tennessee's defensive coordinator) to know that momentum generally doesn't carry over from one season to the next and that each year tends to be its own separate entity.
Does he see any significance in beating the Green Bay Packers -- even though Aaron Rodgers exited before halftime with a concussion -- or in taking to the road the next two weeks to knock off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins? Absolutely.
It is this: The Lions have gotten strong contributions in those games from a core of young players, led by rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who should benefit greatly from the experience of rising to the occasion when so much is often on the line.
That makes the Lions a shining example of a team out of the playoffs but whose prospects look to be pointed in the right direction because they have pieces in place to at least build something solid, and perhaps even better, next season.
The list below includes all but one team from the AFC West, division-champion Kansas City, and other clubs that figure to offer their fans varying degrees of hope. But nowhere does that hope appear stronger than in Detroit.
The Lions played most of the season without injured second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford, who, when healthy, looks like one of the best young players at his position. Their defense offers even more encouragement. Suh, the second overall pick of the draft, quickly became one of the most dominant players in the league, which he continued to demonstrate by registering his ninth sack and knocking down a pass against the Dolphins. He was selected as a starter on the NFC Pro Bowl squad, is a shoo-in to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year, and will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.
Two of Schwartz's third-round picks from his two drafts -- safety Amari Spievey (2010) and linebacker DeAndre Levy (2009) -- each made an interception during the winning streak. Levy returned his 30 yards for the winning score at Miami.
Running back Jahvid Best, the Lions' other first-round choice this year, has overcome nagging turf toe to lead all rookies in combined yards from scrimmage. His 53-yard touchdown reception helped Detroit beat the Dolphins.
As Schwartz told reporters earlier this week, "There's one thing to develop players, it's another thing for them to be productive right now while they're still developing as players. That's where you need to be. You can plug veteran players in, and they can go and play well for you and they can help you win. But if you want to be a good team long-term, you need to have production out of your young players, and you need to keep them improving, you need to have them in a scheme that fits them, and do all those kinds of things."
The Lions aren't the only non-playoff team on the rise. Here are some others to watch for next season:
San Diego Chargers
After back-to-back dominant wins put them on course to rally for another AFC West title, the letdown in Cincinnati made no sense. But if your quarterback is Philip Rivers, you're always going to have a chance to contend. He's one of three Chargers selected to the Pro Bowl (tight end Antonio Gates and guard Kris Dielman are the others). If the Chargers shore up special-teams breakdowns that were mainly responsible for putting them into an early hole, they'll be a contender again.
With Darren McFadden leading the way, the Raiders have the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack. Their quarterback situation remains in flux. Their defense, which ranks 13th in the league, is sending two players to the Pro Bowl: tackle Richard Seymour and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. It would help if Al Davis decided to allow Tom Cable to stick around as coach so that there could be some continuity.
Tony Romo is going to be back healthy to lead an offense that has plenty of weapons, including Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. The defense made a surprising collapse, so that's an area that needs to be addressed. Interim coach Jason Garrett seemed to make a mostly positive impact, especially with the steps he took to try to bring more discipline to the team, but Jerry Jones might seize the opportunity to bring in a full-time replacement for Wade Phillips with greater marquee value.
It was only one game, but rookie Joe Webb certainly gave the Vikings something to think about with his impressive showing as a runner and passer against the Philadelphia Eagles. At the very least, the quarterback cupboard doesn't seem quite as bare as it previously looked. And interim coach Leslie Frazier appears to be doing enough to keep the job beyond the end of the season.
It was only one game, and against a bad team, but rookie Tim Tebow certainly gave the Broncos something to think about with his impressive showing as a runner and passer against the Houston Texans. The Broncos' reorganization at the top will include giving the greatest player in franchise history, John Elway, a key role in the front office. After missing on Josh McDaniels, the Broncos are taking what they see as the necessary steps to get their next coach right.
Should the Browns believe they have an eventual franchise quarterback in rookie Colt McCoy? It certainly looked that way before he took backward steps against the Baltimore Ravens. But team president Mike Holmgren knows a thing or two about developing top passers and building explosive offenses, and that will be his focus with his likely decision to replace Eric Mangini as coach. Could the successor be Holmgren himself?
These guys were a lot more worthy for inclusion on this list before their disastrous showing against the New England Patriots. Their quarterback situation looked to be in better hands before Ryan Fitzpatrick's meltdown in that game. But let's not completely forget how well Chan Gailey led them on a rebound from that 0-8 start. Fitzpatrick still seems to be solid enough to keep the starting job while the team focuses on rebuilding the worst run defense in the NFL.
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.