The Detroit Lions' decade of losing football ended last season.
It remains to be seen if new coach Jeff Fisher can help the St. Louis Rams end their string of sub-.500 campaigns.
Looking to build off its first playoff appearance since 1999, Detroit opens its season with high expectations Sunday when the visiting Rams try to rebound from another last-place finish.
After going 2-14 and 6-10 following their winless 2008, the Lions finished 10-6 in 2011. A 45-28 wild-card loss to New Orleans was a tough way to end the year, but Detroit is finally enjoying some stability as it enters the fourth season with the same head coach, coordinators and general manager, Martin Mayhew.
"There's been continuity in the schemes," said coach Jim Schwartz, Fisher's former defensive coordinator in Tennessee. "It allows the scouting department to have continuity in the way that we scout, which allows our players to be productive."
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson expect to remain one of the most prolific combinations in the league. Stafford, who hurt his non-throwing hand in Week 3 of the preseason, threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns last season after missing 13 games in 2010 with a right shoulder injury, while Johnson led the NFL with 1,681 receiving yards and hauled in 16 TDs.
"We're not the pushover Lions," said center Dominic Raiola. "We've got the best player in the league."
Johnson could definitely be that - he's paid like it after signing an eight-year deal this offseason that could be worth up to $132 million - but the All-Pro wide receiver knows the Lions need contributions from wide receivers Nate Burleson, Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
"We feel that if we don't go, the offense doesn't go," Johnson said. "We put it on our shoulders already."
That's perhaps because two of the Lions' best running backs - Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure - are sidelined. Best will miss at least the first six weeks with lingering concussion issues, while Leshoure has been suspended for the first two games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
The Lions ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing last year with 95.2 yards per game.
"Are we better with Leshoure and Best? Definitely," said Keiland Williams, who could share the bulk of the carries with Kevin Smith. "But we have guys who can step up and get the job done."
Even though he's taking over a team that finished 2-14 last year and is 15-65 during five straight losing seasons, Fisher also enters 2012 with confidence.
"I think we're in a good spot right now," said Fisher, who was out of coaching last season following 17 years with the Titans organization. "... I think this is a team that's going to be fun to watch."
The Rams would like to see starting quarterback Sam Bradford under center for all 16 games after he missed six last season with a high left ankle sprain. After giving up a league-high 55 sacks last season, St. Louis made a move to bolster its offensive line by signing Pro Bowl center Scott Wells, who is returning from knee surgery.
"He understands things, learned the offense very quickly, makes all the calls and makes them correctly all the time," Fisher said. "He anticipates things and he works very closely with the quarterback as he did up there in Green Bay."
The Rams probably won't put up the same numbers as the Packers, but they can't get much worse after averaging a league-worst 12.1 points in 2011.
Bradford, like Stafford a former No. 1 overall draft pick, could have the offense heading in the right direction after throwing five TDs with no interceptions in the preseason.
"I think we're moving into the regular season in a very nice way," Bradford said.
The Rams don't have a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, but they do have running back Steven Jackson, who is targeting an eighth straight 1,000-yard season.
The Lions weren't particularly strong against the run in 2011 - allowing 128.1 yards per game - but their front four led by Ndamukong Suh could be one of the strongest in the NFL.
Detroit also returns a solid group of linebackers, but the secondary remains a concern after the team's last two opponents last season threw for a combined 946 yards and nine TDs. Rookie cornerback Bill Bentley had a solid preseason and could make a major impact.
Bentley's friend, St. Louis corner Janoris Jenkins, should get an immediate challenge in his NFL debut Sunday along with fellow rookie cornerback Trumaine Johnson. The Rams' retooled secondary also includes Cortland Finnegan, who played five seasons for Fisher in Tennessee.
"There's just a new breath of fresh air here," Finnegan said. "Maybe that's what they've needed all along. There are so many guys, free-agent guys that came that are a big part of that, that definitely are going to help try and rebuild and turn around this program."
In their last game versus St. Louis, the Lions, without an injured Stafford, won 44-6 at home Oct. 10, 2010.
- Detroit Lions
- Jeff Fisher