Three of the four teams reaching conference championship games during the 2017 NFL season were .500 or below the year before - Philadelphia, Minnesota and Jacksonville.

So it’s possible the Lions, with a solid off-season of roster building by general manager Bob Quinn, and a new head coach Matt Patricia infusing energy, could do the same, right? The Lions wouldn’t be coming that far. They won nine games in ’16 and ’17, and have averaged nine wins the last four campaigns.

Of course, it’s not that simple, but possible. The Lions have a good nucleus. A rebuild is not in order.

Defense and running the football are the keys. In fact, how obvious they are is stunning.

Minnesota allowed the fewest yards and fewest points in the NFL last season. Jacksonville was second in both categories. The Super Bowl champion Eagles were fourth in yards and points allowed per game.

The other conference finalist was traditional power New England, whose defensive coordinator was Patricia. The Patriots were 29th in yards allowed, but just fifth in points yielded per game.

The Lions’ defense was 27th in yards and 21st in points allowed per game.

The Lions’ defense features a solid secondary (Glover Quin, Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs), which kept them in games by forcing a lot of turnovers. The Lions were fourth in the NFL in interceptions with 19 (tied with Philadelphia), but just 20th in sacks with 35, and 27th in passing yards allowed. They were 20th in run defense, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. It’s a very telling stat in comparison to their rushing offense. The Lions were last in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging an NFL-worst 3.4 yards per carry.

The Lions will have a prolific passing attack. Matthew Stafford is a franchise quarterback and in his prime, and there are no signs wide receivers Golden Tate or Marvin Jones are slowing down. Given the base of the passing attack, all promising young receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Eric Ebron have to do is hold onto the ball. Stafford will find them, and they should be open.