Happy anniversary, Detroit Lions.
Precisely three years after newly hired coach Dan Campbell delivered his introductory press conference — widely dismissed as just another deluded dreamer thinking he could fix a hopelessly fractured franchise — the reborn Lions barged into the NFC championship game.
Whereas the other three teams in this weekend’s conference championship games have a combined 10 Super Bowl wins — San Francisco (five), Kansas City (three) and Baltimore (two) — Detroit is one of four NFL franchises that has yet to reach football’s biggest stage.
These Lions, who knocked off Tampa Bay on Sunday after beating the Rams a week early, are the gritty, feel-good team of the postseason.
In the aftermath of a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers, Campbell said life’s a little tougher in Detroit than other parts of the country, and that helps forge the football community.
“It’s not the first thing you think of if you go to L.A., or just in general,” said the coach, a onetime NFL tight end. “You’ve got the sun, you’ve got the beach, you’ve got plenty of other things going on. And here, man, it’s harsh winters, auto industry, blue collar, things aren’t always here. And I just think that’s what we’re about.
“You want something the city can be proud of. You can look at these guys and say, `Man, I can back that guy. I can back that team. I can resonate with those group of guys. They’re kind of salty. They don’t quit. They play hard.’ And so, I feel like we’ve done that.”
The next round, to determine who plays in the Super Bowl, features two Sunday games: Kansas City at Baltimore at noon PST, followed by Detroit at San Francisco at 3:30.
For Lions quarterback Jared Goff, the NFC title game is a homecoming. He grew up in the Bay Area, rooted for the 49ers and played collegiately at Cal. The Rams made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, then made a swap with Detroit after the 2020 season for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Goff got to the Super Bowl with the Rams in the 2018 season, with Los Angeles winning the conference championship game at New Orleans — a game that included a controversial pass interference by the Rams that was not flagged.
Campbell and other members of the current Lions — linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — were part of that New Orleans team. Goff said they all joked about that coincidence after Sunday’s game, easy to do now that they’re pulling in the same direction.
“I don’t want to say this arrogantly,” Goff said, “but we expected to win the first [playoff] game, we expected to win this game, and now we expected to be in against a really good team at their place, and we’re going to come into it expecting to win.”
The Lions are in the minority in that regard. As of Monday morning, top-seeded San Francisco was favored by 6½ points.
Goff is 3-6 in his starts against the 49ers, the first eight of those coming in his years with the Rams. San Francisco advanced to the conference championship game Saturday night with a closer-than-expected, 24-21 victory over Green Bay.
After facing former No. 1 overall selections in the first two rounds — Stafford and Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield — the Lions will address the other end of the spectrum, as San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy, a most-valuable-player candidate this season, was the last player chosen in the 2022 NFL draft.
The AFC matchup pits two-time MVP Patrick Mahomes and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, in line for his second MVP honors.
The Chiefs have advanced to the AFC championship game for the sixth consecutive time, meaning Mahomes has played in one every season as a starter. But Sunday was his first true road playoff game, not counting three neutral-site Super Bowls. (One of those was in Tampa against the Buccaneers, but only 22,000 fans were allowed to attend because of COVID-19 restrictions.)
He said Sunday that the hostile crowd in Buffalo bonded him and his teammates.
“I think it’s that guys come together,” Mahomes said. “I love being at Arrowhead and playing in front of that crowd. But when you’re on the road, it’s you versus them, it’s you versus everybody in the stadium, and you have to come together as a team, and the guys do that.”
As for the Lions, they’re relishing how far they’ve come to reach the NFL’s version of the Final Four.
“You think about the dark times there early on in 2021,” Goff said, referring to the season Detroit finished 3-13-1. “A lot of people calling for [Campbell’s] head, a lot of people in this room calling for his head. And it’s pretty good to be able to sit up here and be able to play in the NFC championship. And yeah, it feels good.”