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Detroit Lions no longer a joke or fluke. Tonight’s big game shows they’re legit

by | Jan 8, 2023 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

How’s this for a New Year? Matthew Stafford is definitely not going to the playoffs, but his old team might.

Or this: By the stroke of midnight, the Detroit Lions could send Aaron Rodgers home for the winter, while they continue into the postseason.

Or this: A team that had 13 losses in 17 games last season, may, by the final whistle on prime time TV tonight, have a winning season.

What’s the world coming to? Next you’ll be telling us Prince Harry is unhappy. Much as it may hurt those who revel in the slapstick of Lions’ Sundays, we have to face the facts.

Detroit has itself a football team.

Stop squinting.

“You get one, and then you’re able to get another one … and then you get another one,” Lions coach Dan Campbell told the media this week, “and pretty soon you begin to learn how to win. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Learn how to win. That’s different than winning. Any team can win. Even the old Lions won — on occasion. But learning how to win, knowing what it takes, and doing it week after week, well, that has been as elusive as a majority vote for Kevin McCarthy.

But this season, all that changed. The Lions went from 1-6 to 8-8. They have more 30-points-or-more performances than any team in the NFL.

Yet more important than numbers are the qualities they are displaying, qualities we used to yearn for every January, while looking over the fence of another losing season, another fired coach, another wasted draft pick.

Detroit has a football team.

Stop rubbing your eyes.

How the Lions have become … good?

Can these guys really be the Lions? Flexed to Sunday night? Vying for the last playoff spot? The national media rooting for us like a kitten hanging from a branch?

Yep. And here’s the main reasons they’ve gotten this far:

1. Consistent quarterback play. This is a hallmark of any good NFL team. Ask the Jets or the Commanders how life works out when you’re not sure about your quarterback. Jared Goff arrived in Detroit on the shakiest of premises — collateral for the mammoth Stafford deal. But he has quietly evolved into the sturdy handle of the Lions’ slingshot. He is accurate. He looks off receivers. And he doesn’t make the critical mistake, something he was guilty of earlier in his tenure.

Goff hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 9. Coming into tonight’s regular season finale against Green Bay, he’s better than Aaron Rodgers in yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions and fumbles lost. In the last month, he’s been performing at top-five quarterback level. That might get you a playoff berth.

2. Defense. This has to be the shock of the turnaround. Since holding Green Bay to nine points in early November, the Lions have allowed only two teams to score more than 25 points against them (and Detroit won that one.) Over their last five games, they’re allowing just over 20 points per contest. You can win with those numbers. And while you might say that’s too small a sample size, consider this:

3. Youth. The Lions are getting better because they are growing up together. Consider the following names: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston. What do they all have in common? They were all drafted in April! And they are all still on the team and have all contributed, some mightily.

There have been years in Detroit when even the first-round pick turned out to be a bust. When you have this kind of follow-through in a draft, and you throw in a 28-year-old quarterback, you’re younger, healthier, spending less money and in better shape than a lot of other teams.

4. Consistent coaching. There’s no question the Lions turnaround is due in large part to guys who don’t wear uniforms. Brad Holmes traded for Goff and drafted all those guys I just mentioned. And Campbell put it in motion. He got the guys to buy into his approach, play hard, hit hard, not point fingers and enjoy the ride.

“One day you’re going to look back and say, ‘Man, you had these special moments that you were able to be a part of,’ ” Campbell said. “And I try to tell those guys you just don’t know when those are going to come. … But I know this. When you’re done playing, you miss the hell out of it. And this will be one of those moments I believe they’ll always remember.”

Wow. I’m half ready to tee it up myself.

Stop laughing.

Something to play for

Now, it’s true, Lions fans hardly know how to accept a compliment. We wince when analysts pick us to win. We sweat when a critical game like tonight arises, because we’ve seen the local team fail so many times, it’s in our DNA to scream, “SHUT IT OFF! I CAN’T WATCH!”

But let me reassure you. This is pretty much a win-win situation. If Seattle loses, then the game tonight is for the last playoff spot in the league, and just the fact that the Lions are playing for it is major progress.

And if Seattle wins, making the game meaningless for Detroit’s postseason, they still have a chance to keep Green Bay from the playoffs, something the Packers have specialized in over the years against Detroit. How sweet would that be?

The only thing seasoned Lions fans have to fear is if Seattle loses, the game truly matters, and the Lions lay an egg. And I know that’s what many of us, deep down, may be expecting.

But I’m not. I really think these guys are different. They don’t have the demons. They don’t play scared. And even if they don’t win, in Green Bay, in January, something very few teams have traditionally done, I’m predicting they will leave everything they have on that frozen field.

If they at least do that, or, even better, if they come home with a win, or, even better, if they come home with a win that puts them in the playoffs, the arrows are pointing up, the market is trending higher, the doom and gloom days are fading into memory.

Detroit has itself a football team.

Will wonders never cease?

Editor’s note: Column edited to correct number of teams to have scored at least 25 points against the Lions since the Packers game.

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