December 28, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions' next step must be playoff contention

After two semi-understandable rough seasons following the 0-16 debacle, urgency absolutely will rise for Lions coach Jim Schwartz. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

There's no doubt the Lions are showing signs of legitimacy, winning three in a row, two on the road, two against teams in the playoff hunt. And with the end of misery comes the arrival of an expectation so different, we might not know how to handle it.

Playoff contention. Next season.

There. I said it. Sue me, or Suh me, or laugh if you wish.

The Lions haven't reach the playoffs since the 1999 season, and there is the little issue of a possible NFL lockout putting 2011 in peril. I'm certainly not guaranteeing anything. It's an expectation of contention, and at this stage, it's fair to demand it. This is a league where the 7-8 Rams will play the 6-9 Seahawks on Sunday night with the winner earning a home playoff game in the improbably awful NFC West.

The Lions are only 5-10 heading into a winnable finale against the Vikings, and the next step to playoff contention isn't automatic. But quickly now, patience will switch to urgency. It has to be the goal in coach Jim Schwartz's third season, and naturally, it rests on the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Lions have won three straight with backups Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton performing decently. If Stafford can overcome his shoulder injuries -- no surgery is planned -- and play a full season, the Lions at least can do what the Rams have done.

St. Louis was 1-15 last season, worse than the Lions. The Rams drafted Sam Bradford No. 1, and the QB from Oklahoma -- ahem, with a history of shoulder injuries -- merely has set an NFL rookie record for completions. He has thrown for 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, about as solid as a rookie can be.

The key for the Lions and general manager Martin Mayhew will be defensive improvement, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. With a healthy Stafford, a healthier Jahvid Best and star receiver Calvin Johnson, their offense is in good shape. The defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, should rank among the NFL's best, and we've seen how a fierce, pass-rushing line can impact games.

After two semi-understandable rough seasons following the 0-16 debacle, urgency absolutely will rise for Mayhew and Schwartz. The Matt Millen Mess will be further behind, and Mayhew and Schwartz will have three drafts of replenishment. Mayhew's free-agent signings, trades and drafts show promise, but picking at No. 2, where he grabbed Suh, affords obvious advantages.

The Lions likely will draft on the top 10, but might not be able to gobble up one of the top cornerbacks, such as LSU's Patrick Peterson. That's why the leap from 0-16 to 5-10 is easier than the leap from 5-10 to, say, 9-6.

It's a leap the Lions haven't made in more than a decade. Mayhew and Schwartz asked to be judged on what they do, not what happened before. Fine. Judgment Season is coming -- for Stafford, the front office and others.

The Lions should enjoy this late-season push, and then recognize what it means going forward: Everyone will expect them to push for much, much more.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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