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Phoenix — Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders watched the Lions' wild-card loss to the Cowboys, and said he was stunned at the officiating error that played a role in the outcome.

Yet, when reflecting on the team's overall performance, Sanders is optimistic about the future under coach Jim Caldwell.

"If they can come back and build on what we did this year, then the Lions could be in Santa Clara (for the Super Bowl) next year," Sanders said Thursday on radio row.

Any next step the Lions could take likely would need to involve Ndamukong Suh, who will become a free agent in March. An All-Pro defensive tackle, Suh is the key to a Lions defense that finished No. 2 overall.

"Suh makes it all happen over there," said Sanders, in Phoenix raising awareness for pseudobulbar affect (PBA), a neurological condition caused by brain injuries that can cause uncontrollable crying or laughing without a trigger.

Still, after an 11-5 season, Sanders said another winning mark likely will come down to how hungry the team is.

And, perhaps the fashion in which the Lions lost could add fuel to their fire.

"You just hate to see it come down to something like that," he said. "But I think as a fan you still have a lot to be proud of. And there's a lot of good, positive momentum that they all look at that the same way going into next season.

"I think Green Bay should be a little worried about this team as well as all the other teams in the division."

The Lions haven't beaten the Packers on the road since 1991, but Detroit has won the last two at Ford Field. In order to take another step forward, Sanders said the Lions have to "take that show on the road."

"I think the team jelled well last year and showed they could win under any circumstances and really beat some solid teams," he said. "So if they can continue that and keep those important pieces together, then absolutely. That's a team that could go into Green Bay and win, or a team that now instead of just thinking about playoffs should be thinking about home-field advantage."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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