Hear ye, hear ye, Detroit Lions fans. In the middle of a frozen January, our long cold winter is finally over.
It expired less than an hour before midnight Sunday, when Jared Goff, after all his completions and all his pinpoint accuracy, made his favorite move of the game, taking a knee. He then bounced up and threw his fists to the grateful crowd, and the noise was so thunderous, you thought the roof might come down on the building.
But no, that was the Silverdome, the last place the Lions won a playoff game, 32 long and lonely years ago. A 32-year wait? That’s not suffering, that’s torture. But fear no longer, Detroit fans. The devil has been exorcised. It is safe to come out. Our football team stared down their past Sunday night, the ugly glare of three decades of ignoble history, and the blinding excellence of their old quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
And they didn’t blink.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that,” said an exultant Goff after this game was over, and the Lions survived the Rams, 24-23, in the wild card round to advance in the playoffs and slay their ancient dragon. Goff was talking about the fans, the atmosphere, the intensity of the night, but no doubt, inside, he was also talking about the showdown against his old team, and the man who replaced him.
What a battle this was. Goff and Stafford parried like expert swordsmen, clinking their blades so deftly they had time to twirl their mustaches between thrusts. Goff calmly whipped passes to Amon-Ra St. Brown, to Jameson Williams, to Josh Reynolds, while Stafford dropped bombs to Cooper Kupp and the astonishing rookie, Puka Nacua.
Neither quarterback would rattle. Neither made a major mistake. Neither seemed ready to give an inch.
So, as the fourth quarter shrunk to under 5 minutes — with one meager point separating the two teams — you knew it would come down to a frozen moment for each quarterback.
A first down for the ages
Stafford’s moment came first. After two touchdown throws, countless eye-blinking completions, and over 360 yards passing, he’d driven the Rams to the Lions 34, close enough to try a go-ahead field goal. But a holding call pushed L.A. back 10 yards, and Stafford faced a third-and-14.
Almost as soon as he took the snap, he was pressured by a charging Aidan Hutchinson, who’d lined up like a hungry sprinter on the edge of the line. Stafford stepped up to avoid him, a bullfighter evading the bull, then whipped a pass towards Nacua just a bit too strong. The receiver couldn’t pull it in, and the Rams had to punt.
“Life was good on that play,” Hutchinson said later, smiling.
Next it was Goff’s turn. Leading 24-23, the Lions didn’t need him to produce points. They needed to run out the 4 minutes left on the clock. The previous series, after a night of sublime excellence, Goff had buried one pass in the turf and overthrown a receiver on another. It was Detroit’s first three-and-out of the game. The fear was the moment was becoming too big for him.
But when moments enlarge, heroes get larger. Goff trotted out, threw one short pass to David Montgomery, who accelerated for a first down and brought the fans were on their feet. Then, with 2 minutes left in the game and the Rams with only one time out left, Goff dropped back on a second-and-9 and calmly zipped the ball to Amon-Ra. St Brown, who curled for the reception, then dove for a first down that would clinch the win and light the building on fire.
“It’s a route we’ve been running for two years now,” St. Brown told NBC after the game. “We could do it in our sleep.”
To the 66,637 fans in Ford Field, it looked more like a dream. Goff did his victory squat. And as the applause rained down, you could almost see the weight of the last three years floating off his shoulders. Goff doesn’t say a whole lot, certainly not about feeling cast aside by his old team. But everyone knew the pressure he was under in this game. Lose to L.A. and Stafford, and it’s a brutal offseason of questions and doubts. Win, and you can say that, on the big day, when pitted one against the other, it was Goff who lived to fight another battle.
“It was surreal,” Goff said of the deafening ovation he got from the Ford Field crowd, who mostly stayed around until he finally ran into the tunnel, showering him approval.
“From the moment I got here, you imagine getting that playoff win and having this type of atmosphere in front of our home crowd.”
Detroit is a town that understands feeling slighted, that knows what it’s like to be compared to the flashier, sexier alternative. Maybe that’s why the fans saved their biggest roar for No. 16, who did everything he was supposed to do Sunday night. He completed his first 10 passes, finished a stellar 22-for-27, one TD, no picks, 277 yards, and seemingly countless first downs, the most special of which was the final one, a simple pitch-and-catch that will live in Lions lore forever.
“It kind of all hit me there,” Goff said of that last completion. “(I) kind of had to subdue a lot of emotions this week … (but I) was able to kind of enjoy that moment.”
More than a round of applause
Finally, finally, the Lions can remove the chain from their necks, the heavy iron of a losing reputation, and the nasty memories of Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe, or Philadelphia hanging 58 points on them, or Dallas edging them with less than three minutes to go, or Seattle, New Orleans or Washington running them out of the building.
No more. The Lions not only beat the Rams — arguably the toughest team they could have drawn in the first round — but they assured themselves a second home playoff game this Sunday, thanks to Green Bay’s upset of the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions will play the winner of Monday night’s Tampa Bay-Philadelphia game and will no doubt be favored to win.
Favored to win? In a second round playoff? What planet are we on? Can this really be the football franchise that basically defined that old song “Lonesome Loser”?
It can be, and it is. Sunday was a masterclass in getting the most of what you have, The Lions, whose secondary admittedly needs help, knew they were going to surrender a good deal in the passing game, but they hoped to rely on the defense stiffening when the field shrank. And it did. Three times the Rams saw promising drives end in field goals, two of those after reaching the red zone.
Meanwhile, Detroit, behind Goff’s accuracy and just enough production from Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs in the running game, kept the engines firing long enough to turn three of their drives into touchdowns. Add in a 54-yard field goal by Michael Badgley, and it was enough to win this showdown, and slam a hammer on the history that has plagued this town and this franchise since 1992.
“That is arguably the best environment I’ve ever been in,” said coach Dan Campbell, who remembers Ford Field’s swaths of empty seats when the Lions were going 0-16 and he was a player here. “(Tonight) was absolutely electric. … I thought for two years now that building’s been rocking. It was different today. That was a whole other level.”
None louder than when Goff took that victory formation. Who knew kneeling down could be that fun? Even Stafford, after it was over, offered a classy acceptance of the guy who took his place.
“He’s their quarterback,” Stafford said. “He’s playing great. He led them to a win today. I’m happy for him. I thought he played excellent today … (the fans) should be proud of him. They should be cheering for him.”
So how long will this last?
And now the focus shifts from “Can they shed history?” to “Can they make it?” Since 1957, the Lions have never won back to back playoff games. If they do so this Sunday, they will have equaled the farthest this team has ever gone in the Super Bowl era. And they’re doing this two seasons after going 3-13.
Give credit to the offensive line, which held off Aaron Donald the way Hoover Dam holds off water. Give credit to Jack Fox for flipping the field with his punts. Give credit to brave play-calling by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. And give credit to Campbell, who built his team up for this moment and knew how not to let it swallow them whole.
“I know this,” Campbell said. “We were fighting for the two seed to get another home game. And we got another home game. So it’s awesome.”
Awesome it is. Finally, finally, the long winter is over. The weather may call for single digits today, but to paraphrase that old Christmas song, we’ve got our football to keep us warm. Fans have long imagined this moment. But let’s be honest. it somehow feels even better than imagined, doesn’t it?