At this time last year, the Detroit Lions were one of the NFL's most refreshing success stories. With a dynamic young roster and a rejuvenated fan base, the franchise was in the middle of a long-awaited breakthrough that ended with its first playoff berth in a dozen years.
That seems like a long time ago now. The excitement of 2011 has been replaced by frustration, inconsistency — and a growing sense that the Lions are running out of time if they want to avoid taking a clear step back.
With the season slipping away, Detroit returns home for a crucial three-game stretch at Ford Field, starting with Sunday's game against Green Bay.
"This is huge," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "I've been in a lot of situations, but this situation here is very important for us."
At first glance, the Lions (4-5) seem to be right in the thick of the postseason race with plenty of time remaining. If the season ended today, there would be a tie between Seattle and Minnesota for the last NFC wild card spot — and the Lions have only one more loss than those teams.
But although Detroit plays five of its last seven games at home, the schedule is looking like quite a gauntlet. The Lions play Green Bay both home and away, and also host Houston, Atlanta and Chicago. That would be a tough stretch for anybody, especially a Detroit team that's in last place at the moment in the NFC North.
That makes the home games — specifically this next stretch against the Packers, Texans and Indianapolis Colts — very important.
"Playing only three home games in our first nine is tough," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Hopefully Ford Field will be rocking."
Detroit fans developed an impressive reputation last year, forcing false start penalties and giving the Lions a real home field advantage in a city that hadn't seen much good football over the years. Stafford and his teammates could use an atmosphere like that this weekend, but if Detroit falls behind early, it's fair to say there will be a good deal of anxiety in the air.
And if there's one thing the Lions have been consistent at this season, it's falling behind early. They've trailed at halftime in every game but one.
"We certainly want to be aggressive on offense. We want to score touchdowns and those things but you need to combine that with making good decisions and not turning the ball over, too," coach Jim Schwartz said. "A lot also depends on how well you are running the football and how that is affecting coverage too as far as getting the offense jump started. ... However we do it, we just have to get in the end zone more in the first half."
Detroit's offense seemed to have a particularly bright future coming into the season, with Stafford and star receiver Calvin Johnson the two headliners. But Stafford has thrown only 11 touchdown passes after finishing with 41 last season. Too often, the Lions haven't seemed to click until it was late in the game and they were trying to rally for a win.
"This team feels like they're never out of it, no matter what," Stafford said.
It's still too early to panic, but each setback from here on out will be significant, and the Lions will have to play some of their best football of the season to finish strong against elite competition.
"We've got to come together the way we know how to play," Tulloch said. "Guys understand that."
NOTES: DT Ndamukong Suh was credited a sack for a 7-yard loss from last weekend's game at Minnesota after a review by the Elias Sports Bureau. In the third quarter, a 7-yard loss by Vikings QB Christian Ponder was originally ruled a rush and was later determined to be a pass play. ... DL Cliff Avril didn't practice Wednesday because of what was listed as a back injury, but says he's making good progress after suffering a concussion last weekend. "I feel great," he said. "I'm ready to get things going."