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Detroit Lions will be this season's surprise team

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You gotta love the snark of fans in cities where their team can never seem to get on track. Enter the 2011 Detroit Lions. The last time the Lions went undefeated in the preseason, they went winless in the regular season. Now sitting atop a 4-0 preseason, you can understand the jitters of a fan base that hasn't seen a winning season since 2000. This year will be different. Here are three reasons Lions fans won't be wearing paper bags over their heads when they attend this season's games:

The schedule. For a dome team playing in the north, the dreaded cold-weather games can really screw up a big opportunity like this. But they lucked out this year. From Nov. 15 to the end of the season they have only one cold-weather game: at Green Bay on Jan. 1 (miserable, I know). They also get a nice, rare three-game home stand in October and play back-to-back away games only once all season (their Denver-Chicago away games are interrupted by their bye week).

Last season. "It's a whole new season! You can't look at last year!" Wrong. Last season showed us the potential for this Lions team. Yes, they were only 6-10 last season; But of those 10 losses, six of them were by only 5 points or less -- and some of those points were stolen by the officials! But to be a contender for a division title, you have to kill the king...in this case, Green Bay. Last season the 0-3 Lions went into Green Bay...and lost a heartbreaker, 28-26. What was most interesting about that game was that the Lions were down, 28-14, and scored field goals on their next four possessions...this team didn't give up.

When the Packers came into Detroit on Dec. 12, the Lions' defense roared to life and held the Packers to a field goal the entire game. Aaron Rodgers was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, but the Lions had already picked him off once and held him scoreless. Those two games tell me a lot about the character of this team.

The defensive line. They made a statement in the second quarter of their preseason game against the Patriots. Though the Patriots had already sat two starters on their offensive line, it was still impressive. The guy to watch for this season is DE Cliff Avril. With offensive lines worrying about Suh and Vanden Bosch last season, Avril had 8.5 sacks. Once Nick Fairley is able to round out that front, Avril is going to get more and more one-on-ones and I expect that sack number to be in the double digits.

The quarterback. This is the year Matthew Stafford becomes a Pro Bowler, and it's entirely possible he'll be in the final conversation for league MVP. The guy has "it" the way Brees and Brady and Manning and Roethlisberger have "it." And with the bevy of skill-position weapons he has around him, I expect at least 30 TDs from Stafford this season.

My pick: Lions go 11-5, make the playoffs for the first time for the first time since 1999. Odds of winning the division: 50%.