Lions struggle at finish after a strong run

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Associated Press Beloit native Jim Caldwell guided the Lions to the playoffs.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Lions were not a popular pick to reach the playoffs when the 2016 season began.

After winning eight of nine games midway through the season, Detroit (9-8) earned a spot in the postseason.

The Lions, though, spoiled their season by losing the last three games of the regular season and first place in the NFC North and then by getting beat 26-6 at Seattle in an NFC wild-card game to extend the franchise’s postseason losing streak to nine games over 25 years.

“We’re disappointed in the way it ended,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said Monday at the team headquarters.

“But overall this team came through some very, very difficult times and accomplished some things that I don’t think anybody probably in this room thought that they would be able to accomplish. So, I have to commend them for that.”

Caldwell, however, insisted the team didn’t exceed his expectations.

“My only goal is to win the Super Bowl plain and simple,” the Beloit native said. “There’s nothing else other than that.”

Detroit started slow, losing three of its first four games before putting together three- and five-game winning streaks to be in a favorable position to win a division title for the first time since 1993.

The Lions became the first NFL team to come back from fourth-quarter deficits to win eight games in a season.

They failed to keep winning because of two main factors: Matthew Stafford’s injured finger and stiff competition.

Stafford hurt the middle finger on his throwing hand, hurting the team’s chances of winning on the road against the Seahawks, Dallas and New York Giants and against Green Bay at home.

Here are some things to watch when Detroit tries to retool this offseason.

• FRANCHISE QB: Stafford said he expects his right middle finger to heal with rest, not surgery. He threw with a glove, leaving his banged-up finger exposed with a splint, late in the season and playoffs and it seemed to affect his play. He threw more interceptions (five) than TD passes (three) over the last four-plus games with the injury. Before that, the Lions had surged to a 9-4 record and Stafford was being mentioned as a potential MVP candidate with 21 TDs and five interceptions.

Stafford is entering the final season of his $53 million, three-year deal. The Lions will likely want to sign him to a new deal this season to keep the quarterback they drafted No. 1 overall in 2009.

• BANGED-UP BACKFIELD: When Detroit’s injured running backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, were both healthy in Week 1 at Indianapolis, they combined for more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving. That was the end of their run and it led to the Lions ranking among the league’s worst rushing offenses.

Abdullah hurt his left foot in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season. Riddick was limited to 10 games, missing the last five games with an injured left wrist that is in a cast.

• TO SIGN, OR NOT TO SIGN: Offensive tackle Riley Reiff and guard Larry Warford have started a majority of the games the past four seasons. The Lions will likely have to pay plenty to get them to stay instead of testing their value as unrestricted free agents on the market.

Detroit will also have decisions to make with free agents such as receivers Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts along with defensive end Devin Taylor.

• KEEPING CALDWELL: A week after the Lions announced Caldwell would be back for a fourth season, he still wasn’t willing to discuss the topic. Receiver Golden Tate didn’t hide his emotions, sharing his enthusiasm about having Caldwell return and the continuity that comes with it.

“Yes!” Tate screamed. “Sorry, got a little excited.”

• LOSING AUSTIN: Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is a candidate to lead an NFL team for the third straight winter, and Caldwell is rooting for him.

“He’s well prepared for the task,” Caldwell said.

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