Detroit Lions enter playoffs, battle scars and all, vs. familiar friend

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

The last four plays of the Detroit Lions’ regular season were four straight passes to receiver Josh Reynolds. In most ways, since the game was already won, the plays were insignificant. Except that Reynolds needed 36 yards on the day to earn a chunky incentive bonus, and the rest of the Lions — and the coaching staff — knew it.

So here came a 9-yard pass his way, then an 8-yarder, then a 2-yarder, then a 7-yarder.

“Usually at the end of the game you’re running it in that situation … taking a knee,” said Amon-Ra St. Brown, Reynolds’ fellow receiver. “(Instead) I’m on the sidelines (yelling) ‘We gotta keep throwing it! Keep throwing it!”

Think about that. In the final seconds of their winningest season this century, the Lions made sure one of their hardest working, blue-collar players earned a nice chunk of change, then celebrated his achievement. It will never show up on the stat sheet, but moments like that go a long way towards building a united spirit, and a united spirit goes a long way towards winning in the postseason.

Which is where the Lions finds themselves today, in this strange new magical universe they call Home Playoff Land, where you get to try for the first of three wins to reach the Super Bowl, while more than half the league — a group the Lions usually are a part of — goes home for the winter.

And thanks to a late touchdown by the L.A. Rams, the Lions will face the last quarterback to lead them to the playoffs, Matthew Stafford, in a highly anticipated matchup this weekend at Ford Field.

What was big just got bigger.

“Listen it’s a good feeling, being able to get 12 wins, that’s significant,” Dan Campbell said after his team held off the Vikings, 30-20, to finish 12-5 atop the NFC North. “… More than anything, after what we went just got through today and what we did, it tells me were ready for what’s next. …

“We’re battle tested. We’re scarred to perfection. And we will be ready.”

I swear, half the time Campbell talks, you want to drop your notepad and yell, “Sir, yes, sir!” But what a perfect phrase. Scarred to perfection. Like a juicy steak. Like a Bond villain.

It’s scars that tell your story. And, at times, predict your future.

Rinsing off that disappointment

Let’s face it. The Lions had a deep gash coming into Sunday’s finale. They should have won in Dallas the week before. Should have been sitting as the No. 2 seed with a chance at No. 1, a bye week, and home field throughout the playoffs.

All that changed on one blown referee call in AT&T Stadium near the end of their titanic clash with the Cowboys, a play that robbed Detroit of a winning 2-point conversion, and an entirely different narrative. That’s a scar. A Frankenstein scar. Some teams don’t recover from that. Some wear it like a slimy film that leaves them smelling funky for weeks.

Campbell knew that ugliness had to be power-washed away. It was likely one of the reasons he chose to play all his starters Sunday, versus resting at least his stars, because he wanted to enter the postseason on a winning vibe.

That he did. The Lions beat the Vikings Sunday with some monster offensive plays from their best players who otherwise would have been sitting (including a 70-yard touchdown pass from Jared Goff to St. Brown) and some highlight reel defensive moments (two more sacks by Pro Bowler Aidan Hutchinson, plus two Detroit interceptions).

But Sunday’s battle left another scar. Two, to be precise. Sam LaPorta, the Lions’ superb newcomer, exited the game with a knee injury after setting the all-time NFL mark for receptions by a rookie tight end. And Kalif Raymond, a star on special teams and a reliable receiver, went out with a knee injury as well. I imagine both are unlikely for this weekend’s game.

Which means there is some handwringing this morning. Why play those guys — especially a vital cog like LaPorta — in a game whose outcome wasn’t likely to change anything?

“It’s a tough deal,” Campbell admitted. “It’s tough.” But then he added, “I know this much. You’re either kinda all in or all out.”

Need we ask in which category Campbell resides?

Hey, it was always a risk. But when the coach decided to go helmets first into the breach Sunday, play everybody, play them all game long, possible injury attached the way a shadow attaches to a walk in the sun.

On the other hand, the Lions could have rested LaPorta all day Sunday and he could have injured himself on the first play of next week’s game. You never know. Personally, I would have treated Sunday like a preseason contest, let your top guys play some, keep their sharpness, timing and momentum, then get them out of there safely.

But I’m not the coach. The Lions would go through a wall for Campbell right now. They ride or die with his decisions.

“We’re full go,” Hutchinson said. “I respect that about us.”

Or as his coach put it, “You can either say woe is me or this is the world you’re in. What are you going to do about it?”

I guess we’re about to find out.

Old friends meet again

And in a big way. The Lions-Rams game will be a huge draw nationally, not just because of the massive Los Angeles market, but because of the storyline. The Rams sent Goff to Detroit to make room for Stafford, who took L.A. to a Super Bowl win, while Goff went 3-13 in his first season.

Now it’s Goff who is on the rise, with a division champion. But all eyes will be on how well he holds up against his old team. And how well Stafford performs in the place he called home for 12 years.

“A lot of buddies on that team,” Goff said when asked about the possibility of playing the Rams. “It’d be good to see them.”

Not when they’re trying to clobber him.

Oh, it’s juicy, this game, and full of subplots. But leave that for the buildup this week. There will be plenty of it. For the moment, we should stop and appreciate what just transpired at Ford Field.

The Lions just finished tied for the best record in the NFC, and the second best record in the whole league.

As Goff noted, “not that long ago, we were 3-13 trying to figure things out. And then early on last year, 1-6.

“It’s still all those same guys that don’t take this for granted and know how big of an opportunity we have now.”

For Detroit, it’s beyond big. It’s huge. It’s all this football town has yearned for. How many years did Lions seasons end with a half-empty stadium and a dejected walk off?

I can recall so many years where the season finale snapshot was a muted locker room, and balls of dirty white tape being thrown across the floor as attendants collected towels and players dressed and packed their things, their hair still wet from the final postgame shower.

How much better was this? Players bouncing out, anxious to get back to work, planning for the national spotlight, visions of Super Bowls dancing in their heads.

“Pressure, pressure,” Campbell said, when asked about differences in the postseason. “People will crack under pressure. I feel like this team’s been put under enormous amounts of pressure and we’ve risen to the challenge. So I feel like they’re ready.”

Scarred to perfection. The Lions will host the Rams in a game whose noise will shake the very foundation of downtown Detroit. And we’ll finally see how all those scars propel our football team, even as it tries to inflict some of its own.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him @mitchalbom.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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