ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Coach Jim Schwartz calls it the peer group -- the teams the Lions have to beat consistently to advance from playoff team to championship contender.
General manager Martin Mayhew looked at the playoff field -- specifically the six NFC teams that qualified for the postseason -- as the measuring stick.
We lost to four of them, Mayhew said in a session with the media last week. So, weve got some work to do to make that next step.
The two men with the key roles in shaping the Lions' roster expressed the same view in different words in their postseason assessments of how the team performed in 2011 to make the playoffs for the first time in 12 years and what needs to be done to improve.
In order to win a championship, the Lions have to play better and matchup better against the NFLs best teams.
Analyzing the Lions position by position, they are good in enough areas to make the playoffs again in 2012, but theyre still short of the goal of winning in the postseason.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford is at an elite level, and his receivers and tight ends -- led by Calvin Johnson -- are at a championship level as a group. The offensive line is solid enough.
On defense, the front four should be a dominating unit, and the linebackers are solid, if not spectacular.
Assuming the Lions can keep the key elements of their roster intact for next season -- and that is a big assumption given the vagaries of free agency -- the deficiencies are obvious.
On offense, its the running game. It will improve if Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure make a return from injuries, but there is no guarantee that will happen for either player.
On defense, playmaking in the secondary is the primary need. Restoring the pass rush to the level of 2011 as a consistently dominating threat and avoiding big-play breakdowns in defending the pass and the run are secondary issues.
Looking back on the Lions' 45-28 loss to the Saints in the wild card round of the NFC playoffs, the failure to make drive-stopping, game-changing plays on defense is what separates the Lions from the winners in the weeks divisional round.
When there were plays to be made on defense, the winning teams made them.
When he spoke to the media on Monday, Giants coach Tom Coughlin led off with a statement on how winning the turnover battle was the key element in Sundays 37-20 win at Green Bay.
The opportunity for us to be a plus-3 team -- we had one turnover and they had four -- was a huge part of the game, Coughlin said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for 466 yards and three touchdowns. As hot as he was, the Lions let him continue his proficient performance with missed opportunities. Immediately after the game, Schwartz referred to dropped interceptions as a key reason for the loss.
The Lions had two chances for game-changing interceptions in the second half, but both were dropped -- one by Eric Wright midway through the third quarter, the other by Aaron Berry on the Saints' first possession of the fourth quarter.
Wright made a perfect break on his play and could have had a walk-in touchdown for a 21-17 Lions lead had he caught the ball. Berry couldnt handle a floater thrown by Brees. It was a pop fly, nothing more, but Berry didnt make what should have been a gift pick.
The result: Another Saints TD that expanded their lead from 24-21 to 31-21.
Call it what you want -- misplays, bad plays, lack of plays -- heres how the Lions performed in game-defining moments compared to the four teams playing in Sundays conference championships:
49ers: The fourth quarter exchange of touchdowns that ended in the 49ers' 36-32 win over the Saints shouldn't obscure the impact of turnovers and the 49ers' run defense. They had two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, forced five punts and held the Saints to 37 yards rushing compared to the 167 they gained against the Lions.
Giants: They had an interception, four sacks, three fumble recoveries and held Aaron Rodgers to a single TD pass in a 37-20 win.
Contrast that to the Lions' feeble effort in a 45-41 loss in the last game of the regular season. With Rodgers on the bench, backup QB Matt Flynn shredded the Lions for six TD passes. One was on an 80-yard screen pass that could not have been played more ineffectively by the Lions if it had happened in an offseason workout with the defense not wearing pads.
Patriots: They overwhelmed the Broncos to such a degree in a 45-10 victory that they didnt need to create turnovers. However, they made the necessary adjustment on defense to contain Broncos QB Tim Tebow and the option running game.
Ravens: They remained offensively challenged in a 20-13 win over the Texans, but their defense stood up to any challenge. They had three key interceptions, topped by safety Ed Reeds game-clincher when the Texans were threatening on their last two possessions.
When Reed got his hands on a poorly through ball by rookie QB T.J. Yates, he came down with it. On a fourth-down throw by Yates on the last possession, Reed batted the ball away. End of drive. End of game.
Its how teams win playoff games and championships.