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With only two winning records in the past 14 seasons, the Lions haven’t been among the NFL’s elite teams nor a consistent choice to make the playoffs.

After last season’s surprising 11-5 mark and close loss in the wild-card game, the expectations are changing around the Lions, who have a chance to make the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1994-95.

Despite some key losses on the defense that was ranked No. 2 in the league last season, the Lions are expected by most analysts to take a step back this season and miss out on the playoffs. So far in training camp, though, they’re flying under the radar but are winning over more experts and turning some heads with their offseason, including an impressive 23-3 win over the Jets in the preseason opener.

Count Sports Illustrated’s Peter King among them.

In his Monday Morning Quarterback column, King cites the Lions as one of the surprise teams he’s seen in training camp. His trip to Allen Park may shake up the projections for the North Division, calling into question the perception that the Packers again are the runaway favorite.

“All along, I’ve had this thought that Minnesota would be my surprise team of the NFC,” King wrote. “Then I came to Allen Park, Mich., to watch the Lions practice, and saw rookie back Ameer Abdullah run through everyone on defense, and watched one of the two or three most intense practices of our tour, and saw a healthy Calvin Johnson shred the defense like the pre-ankle-injury days.

“And I imagine that Caraun Reid and others we’ve never heard of can play well enough in the middle of the defensive line to soften the death blow of losing Ndamukong Suh.”

King pointed to the Lions taking the Packers to the wire in the regular-season finale and quarterback Matthew Stafford dueling with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers late in the game.

The key to the Lions’ success last season was the defense, which will be without Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley on the front, replaced by Reid, Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker.

After Reid worked out with Suh, who left for the Dolphins in free agency, Reid reshaped his body and enhanced his work ethic, gleaning significantly from the All-Pro tackle. But with Suh’s departure, the back seven of the defense likely will play a bigger role in getting the necessary stops to try to repeat last season’s production.

But with a retooled front, seeing another dominant defense is a possibility. Despite losing Suh, there could be a residual impact of his time in Detroit.

“The irony of Suh leaving? And taking his incredible run defense and sacking (a team-high 8.5 sacks) with him to Miami?” King wrote. “In the off-season, he tutored Reid, working out with the second-year Princeton kid, and all in Detroit camp say Reid came back this summer a different player.

“How interesting that Suh, who has expressed nothing but love for the Lions after leaving for Miami’s riches, may have left a gift upon his departure from Michigan. If Reid becomes an impact player, and that’s a very big “if,” Suh would be the former first-round pick that kept on giving.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

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