I’m putting the Detroit Lions in the playoffs. Bleep it. If the NFL won’t, I will.
I’ve watched every minute of every Lions game this season, and while they stunk up the joint early, from November onward, they’ve been a formidable team, one that grew stronger pretty much every week. By the end, in my view, they were in the top seven in the league.
Don’t smirk. I’m serious. Look at the numbers. Look at the wins. They were 8-2 over their last 10 games. Only Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Francisco did as well or better in that stretch.
So before we close the book on their season, let’s do a hypothetical. The old expression is, “It doesn’t matter how a team plays early, it’s how they’re playing late,” right?
Well, the way the Lions were playing late, up to and including their unlikely victory Sunday night, in supposedly the hardest venue to win in January, against a team that had everything to play for, against a former MVP quarterback, against a mountain of history, and with the wind supposedly out of their sails less than an hour before the game when they learned that the postseason gates had crashed down on them — well, the Lions had more momentum than almost all of the teams that are getting to play on wild card weekend.
“Things are meant to happen for a reason,” Dan Campbell told the media on Monday, “and there’s a reason why we didn’t get in.”
What’s the reason, someone asked?
“I don’t have that answer yet.”
I do. This universe never cuts the Lions a break.
Which is why, for today, I invented another one.
I studied the teams. I studied the NFC bracket. And in my hypothetical world, through my Honolulu-blue colored glasses, I could see the Lions going — sit down, this may make you dizzy — to the NFC championship.
And no, I am not writing this from a barstool.
The (new) path to a championship
Want proof? OK. Here we go. Had the refs not blown a call in Seattle, giving the Seahawks a second chance at a late comeback against the Rams, then Detroit would be playing the 49ers this weekend in San Francisco.
In my mind, this is the toughest wild card draw. Nobody in the NFC is playing better than the Niners, including the No. 1 seed Eagles, who lost two of their last three while Jalen Hurts recovered from injury.
True, for the Lions to advance beyond the first week would take an incredible game. They’d be legitimate underdogs. But the 49ers are starting quarterback Brock Purdy, a rookie on a roll. Do you know the last time a rookie quarterback won a playoff game? It was 2013. It just doesn’t happen. If Purdy were overwhelmed, the Niners have no one to turn to. Their other two starters, Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance, are out for the year.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ pass rush is much improved from the start of the year, with Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston possibly able to make some plays that could turn the game, or at least affect field position. Look at what they did to Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.
The offense would have to be mistake-free against a formidable 49ers defense. But Jared Goff hasn’t thrown a pick since his prom, and he’s quite used to playing in San Francisco. Not saying it would be likely, but the way the Lions have been playing, you can’t call a win impossible.
So let’s say they shock everyone and beat the 49ers. Now it becomes considerably easier. The NFC playoff field is full of flawed teams. No matter who the Lions faced in the second week, they could beat them.
The Giants? Did that already. The Vikings? Did that already. Both teams were much better early than late. They are sinking stocks. The Buccaneers? Have you watched them play? Tom Brady or no Tom Brady, their offense is like watching sludge fill a pipe. There’s a reason they have a losing record. I’d put the currently hot Lions over them any day.
So let’s say the Lions beat whomever they play in the second week. That puts them — tada! — in the NFC championship game, most likely against the Eagles, the team they faced in the first week of the 2022 season. Remember that game? They lost by three.
Savor this moment
Now, to be honest, the point of this little exercise is not a fond fantasy. It actually stings. Because there really isn’t a dominant team in the NFC this year. The elite talent lives on the AFC side of the fence. The red-hot Lions could have done more postseason damage this January than in many other seasons.
Instead, they go home, despite the fact that, if you ask me, they are a better team than playoff-bound Jacksonville, Seattle or Miami right now. True, they go home happy. If you saw their locker room celebration after the Green Bay win, it looked like they’d captured a title. They were jumping into the Lambeau Field stands and doing somersaults on the frozen tundra.
There’s a reason for that. The Lions are at a beautiful moment in sports, the moment when you realize greatness is possible, that you are coming, you are young and passionate and you are coming. The early Bad Boys Pistons teams had this. The 1987 Red Wings had it. It’s that time when you are flush with possibilities, when the coach still feels fresh, when the “team” concept is still real, before big egos and new contract demands start to ruin things.
“I know this,” Campbell said. “The standards here will not change; the expectations will, though.”
Let’s hope the breaks will as well. A few more of those Sunday, and this crazy season could have had an even wilder finish.