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INSIDE PLANT: NFL report on the Lions

By all accounts, the Lions exceeded expectations in 2014 by finishing 11-5 and earning a wild-card berth in coach Jim Caldwell's first season. But, the team was not good enough to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, which led to a devastated locke...

By all accounts, the Lions exceeded expectations in 2014 by finishing 11-5 and earning a wild-card berth in coach Jim Caldwell's first season.

But, the team was not good enough to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, which led to a devastated locker room after the game and on Monday.

"It was a good year, not a great year," Caldwell said Monday. "Good years, you make it into the playoffs. Great years, you win it all. And we didn't win it all obviously, but I do think that we put ourselves in position to do so."

The Lions' season will be remembered in a few ways. First, the defense was incredible with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as the centerpiece, leading the team with 8.5 sacks and adding 13 tackles for loss. The No. 2 unit, which was first against the run, also had key contributions from weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy, who was second in the NFL with 151 tackles, and free safety Glover Quin, who led the league with seven interceptions. Levy and Quin were second-team All-Pros.

The Lions also had a stretch of three come-from-behind victories in a row over the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins. Quarterback Matthew Stafford engineered winning drives in the fourth quarter of those games, showing that the team had overcome its 2013 ways of giving away games, which led to a 1-6 finish that kept them out of the playoffs at 7-9.

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But it wasn't all rosy for the Lions. After those three comebacks, they failed to score a touchdown in losses to the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots -- proving that the early-season struggles on offense were not a fluke.

What many expected to be an offensive juggernaut became a simply average unit as the Lions scored more than 24 points just three times and never scored more than 35 -- a surprise considering they had Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and the strong-armed Stafford.

The Lions' special teams struggled, too, as Nate Freese and Alex Henery combined to make just 4 of 12 field goals the first five games. Late in the season, the Lions had other special teams blunders as well -- highlighted by a 55-yard punt return touchdown allowed to Green Bay's Micah Hyde in Week 17 and Sam Martin's 10-yard punt against the Cowboys in the playoffs.

With expectations sky-high, the offensive woes ultimately cost the Lions, who scored just three points in the second half of a 24-20 loss in Dallas. The Lions finished 19th in total yards and 22nd in scoring while Stafford was below average in just about every statistical category -- 25th in completion percentage, 19th in yards per attempt (7.1), 14th in touchdowns (22) and 21st in passer rating (85.7).

Caldwell's conservative style also hurt the Lions at times, but his game management issues were overlooked in some games as other coaches -- namely Atlanta's Mike Smith and Miami's Joe Philbin -- made more costly errors in games Detroit ultimately won.

Looking ahead, the Lions need to sign Suh to ensure sustained success, but the players are confident they can build on a mostly impressive 2014.

"I challenge every man in here to go have the best offseason of your life," Tate said. "We see how close we are as a community and that should encourage. Yeah, the season is over and it's tough to swallow right now, but the Detroit Lions are not done. This could be the start of something great, I think."

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