Detroit Lions earned their spot on the national stage for the first time in decades

Dan Campbell leaned into Detroit Lions history when he took the job as head coach. He leaned into the pressure last week as his team prepared to play Green Bay.

“Let’s find out,” he said when asked how his team would handle the national stage, the possibility of a playoff berth, Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers. “(Let’s) find out … and figure out who can, who can’t, who’s young, who’s not, who’s mature.”

He didn’t pretend Sunday night in Green Bay was just another game. He didn’t run from the stakes. And when Seattle eked out a win over Los Angeles in overtime and ended his team’s playoff chances, he insisted the team still had plenty on the line.

Asked what his team was playing for at the end of the first quarter, Campbell said: “We don’t want them to go.”

Between that simple, declarative statement and the hook-and-ladder play in the last few minutes and the fourth-and-1 conversion to seal the win over the Packers, the Lions’ coach showed the nation what so many around here had been feeling the last two months:

He gets it. Beyond that, he gets Detroit.

Lions coach Dan Campbell and quarterback Jared Goff talk before the game against the Packers on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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And when he told his team and eventually the media after the game that what they were really playing for was respect, well, it’s a heckuva thing to be seen, no?

Welcome to the NFL, Detroit. Also, welcome to real expectations.

The NFL’s national analyst-types didn’t spend Sunday night and much of Monday talking about the Lions because of their stirring win over the Packers, or even because of their 8-2 run to close the season; every season has its hot streak, its flash across the sky.

No, this is about the future, about signs that one of the game’s foundational franchises looks like it is finally ready to compete. That the Lions ownership, front office, coaching staff and players are building something sustainable.

No wonder so many shed a tear Monday night as Rodgers walked off the field and Jared Goff and many of his teammates high-fived the Lions fans hugging the railing at the lowest rung of the stadium. You didn’t have to look far to see someone say the win was the best of their lifetime of Lions fandom.

Or at least since the 1991 season, when the Lions beat the Cowboys in the playoffs at the Silverdome to advance to the NFC title game. That, as much as anything, speaks to the depth — and length — of suffering with this franchise.

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And before anyone dismisses the vibes coming off Sunday night’s performance, remember this wasn’t just beating a tormentor in Rodgers, or beating a rival in Green Bay, or securing a winning record or a 5-1 divisional record or even adding football fans to Detroit’s burgeoning national bandwagon, this was about possibility.

About watching a handful of rookies — ROOKIES! – make plays to help win the game. Hello, Aidan Hutchinson. Hi there, Kerby Joseph. How ya doin, Josh Paschal? And Malcolm Rodriguez?

Receiver Jameson Williams made a play, too. His touchdown was called back though. Still, the burst down the sideline after he caught Goff’s pass on a flea-flicker? It’s not so hard to imagine that connection next season, either.

Lions defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the first half on Sunday, Jan.  8, 2023, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Lions defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the first half on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The Lions got better this season as their youngsters got better. Their development, along with second-year players like Penei Sewell, is what gave Sunday night its context, and why it felt so different from any other Lions win in the last couple of decades.

There is a plan. Talent is part of it, maybe even most of it, obviously. But not all of it. Campbell said this again Monday during his season-ending news conference.

“You have to meet a certain type of criteria to be here,” he said. “We don’t just strictly look at talent.”

Although they look at talent, too. Teams don’t win eight out of 10 without it. Yet as much as talent, Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes want players who will show what the Lions showed Sunday night, to play as if it were the Super Bowl when in fact it was just the last game of the regular season with no playoff berth at stake.

Think about how the Lions flew around Lambeau Field in that cold, about how tough-minded they were, about the relentlessness they played even as they trailed for the first half. It’s why they grabbed the attention of the national pundits and so many former players Sunday night and Monday.

They know. And they see. And their disappointment that the Lions won’t be playing this weekend was real.

Imagine that?

From oh-why-do-we-have-to-watch-the-Lions-on-Thanksgiving-again to … “the Lions are dope.”

And Campbell is a mad genius. And damn, that hook-and-ladder. Who calls that?

The Lions do. Or at least these Lions do. They are different. And they are young. And the sports world recognizes it because it’s fun, a word used liberally the last couple of days.

“It’s become a special place,” said Goff.

Teams don’t just shake off 1-6 starts to get flexed onto national television to end the season. This is not normal. But then these aren’t your traditional Lions.

“I believe in the chemistry, the identity of this team,” said Campbell. “… We’re only going to grow and get better, and as that’s happening, we’re going to add more pieces.”

And then?

The tournament, as Campbell calls it. It’s time for the Lions to get into it.

“Because once you get into the tournament,” he said, “anything can happen.”

Sunday night was about imagining that, too.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions arrive on the national stage for the first time in decades

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