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Bitter playoff loss sends Lions into offseason full of uncertainty; Suh's free agency looms

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ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Golden Tate was at the Detroit Lions' practice facility wearing a red sweatshirt with the words "Detroit Against The World" on it.

That sentiment resonates quite a bit in Motown right now.

"Prime example last night, I guess," the Detroit wide receiver said.

Tate and the Lions enter the offseason after an unusually bitter postseason defeat. They led for most of Sunday's game against Dallas, but the Cowboys rallied for a 24-20 win. Detroit was miffed by a disputed call in the fourth quarter, and the loss was agonizing for the fan base. After going 11-5, the Lions made a spirited bid for what would have been their second playoff victory of the Super Bowl era, only to fall short.

"A good year, you make it into the playoffs. Great years, you win it all. We didn't win it all obviously, but I do think that we put ourselves in position to do so," coach Jim Caldwell said. "An analogy could be similar to a golf game: If you hit it on the green enough times where you're putting for birdie and you end up with par, if you keep giving yourself enough opportunities, pretty soon you're going to sink a birdie somewhere along the way."

The Lions made strides in Caldwell's first season at the helm, but Detroit faces an uncertain future. Defensive star Ndamukong Suh is eligible for free agency, and so is fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has received interest from other teams as a head coaching candidate.

Suh was emotional after Sunday's loss, and veteran center Dominic Raiola fought back tears Monday when he spoke with reporters.

"There's no words," he said. "I just wanted so much more for this team, guys in this locker room, city, deserve so much more. I don't know. I'm still numb to it."

PHOTO: Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh tries to regain his composure during a news conference after an NFL wildcard playoff football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys won 24-20. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh tries to regain his composure during a news conference after an NFL wildcard playoff football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys won 24-20. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

With Detroit ahead 20-17, the Cowboys were flagged for pass interference, but officials rescinded the call moments later, leaving the Lions facing fourth-and-1. Detroit punted, and Dallas drove to the winning touchdown.

The Lions made the playoffs for only the second time in the last 15 seasons, and they came close to some even more memorable accomplishments. Detroit lost the regular-season finale at Green Bay with the NFC North title at stake. Then the Lions took an early 14-0 lead against Dallas, but couldn't hold on. They haven't won a postseason game on the road since 1957.

Suh's future is the biggest issue facing the Lions this offseason. He's been one of the league's most dynamic players during his five years as a pro, and he's had little to say lately about his future plans.

"That will continue to be one of our highest priorities. That's going to be addressed constantly here until we come to some conclusion," Caldwell said. "He's a dominant, dominant player who we benefit from, greatly, from having his services. He's a tremendous asset to our team and I'll leave it at that. He's quite a player."

Detroit's strength this year was its defense, especially a line that was among the toughest in the NFL to run against. Keeping that group together may be difficult.

Offensively, the Lions never clicked on a consistent basis. Quarterback Matthew Stafford avoided the types of mistakes that had plagued him in 2013, but behind a shaky offensive line, his numbers dipped a bit, and Detroit was forced to rely on its defense.

Still, the Lions' formula resulted in a playoff berth, and they nearly extended their season with an upset victory at Dallas. There were a number of reasons Detroit lost, but that one curious officiating decision will linger for a while.

"It's in the past now," Tate said. "If I go back and look at it, it's probably going to upset me more, thinking about the what-ifs."


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