DETROIT — There’s an oft-shared experience among those who’ve played for the Detroit Lions. A rite of passage, really. You’re told you won’t win anything. That this franchise is known for losing. Players know it all too well and have heard it all too often.
“‘Oh, you guys are no good. You guys aren’t gonna do anything.’ Everyone on this team, I’m sure someone’s told them that,” wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said Sunday evening. “‘You’re on the Lions. You guys aren’t gonna do anything.’”
Leave it to St. Brown — the man with more receipts than your accountant during tax season — to put it in layman’s terms. This was his experience. Three years ago, he joined a roster stripped to its core, set to face another rebuild. The general perception? Why should this one be any different? These are the Lions, after all. They weren’t going to win anyone over at an introductory news conference. In order to rewire the way people view this city’s football team, it was up to St. Brown and so many others acquired over the years to win when it matters most — in January.
“We know what the perception is of being on the Detroit Lions,” St. Brown said Sunday, three years after this thing began, after the Lions’ 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to advance to the NFC Championship Game. “But we feel that we have a chance to change things — not just for this year, but for years to come.”
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Three years ago. That’s when this thing started. It’s when Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes were hired. It’s when players like St. Brown, Jared Goff, Penei Sewell and so many others touched down in Detroit, told they’d never win anything of substance as long as they donned the jersey of a franchise known for losing.
Many players had to experience the same losing their predecessors did, the same losing they were told they were good for. But for this team to get where it is now, it was a necessary step. To change the perception of others, the Lions had to know if their perception of themselves was real.
“When you’re 0-10-1, you find out about people,” Campbell said last week. “You find out about players and coaches, people in the organization. And so, that’s why you have the best perception of what those people are and how they’re made and what drives them and what they’re willing to do for those around them. That’s a much better viewpoint and look at people than when everything’s going great and you’ve got 12 wins.”
That’s where the Lions’ trust in what they’re doing stems from — that first season together. Left tackle Taylor Decker referenced a scene from HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which aired ahead of the 2022 season. The Lions were coming off a 3-13-1 season. During training camp one morning, the team was in full pads, with coaches ramping up the intensity to prepare them for the season ahead. They were going hard because they were being tested.
Perhaps noticing the rolling of eyes and comments mumbled about the intensity level, Campbell made a speech to his players.
Like everything else along the way, they remember it.
“He said, ‘Guys, just trust me, I’m doing everything I can to put you guys in the best position possible,’” Decker recalled after Sunday’s game. “‘I’m not crazy, just trust me and just follow the plan.’ That’s what we’ve done, and we believe in each other. We believe in our coaches, and it’s turned into something pretty cool.”
That trust, between player and coach, is why the Lions are here. Those votes of confidence add up over time, manifesting in ways fans of this team could once only dream of but are now witnessing in real time. We saw it in Week 1, when the Lions went to Kansas City and took down the Chiefs on banner night. We saw it in the wild-card round, when Goff beat his former team and the quarterback for whom he was traded, in Detroit’s first playoff win in 32 years. The Lions fully believe they can match up with any team in the league and win on a given Sunday. This is the team they were meant to be.
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It all led to Sunday. The Buccaneers were in town, and the winner would go on to play for a trip to the Super Bowl. What you saw Sunday was what the Lions expected. The stars like Goff (30-of-43 for 287 yards and two touchdowns), St. Brown (eight receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown), Aidan Hutchinson (one sack and three QB hits) and others played up to their potential in a playoff game. Detroit’s rookie class, one criticized at the time of the draft, continues to flourish. This was the vision initially laid out, as the powers that be built this thing.
“I envisioned that we would have a chance to compete with the big boys, and that’s where we’re at,” Campbell said.
It’s not just the stars, though. Look around this roster, look at Sunday’s box score, and you’ll find unheralded players the Lions identified as their guys, added to a roster built to win. Brock Wright, an undrafted free agent three years ago, has a thankless job as Detroit’s No. 2 tight end. He doesn’t often get media attention — that goes to rookie sensation Sam LaPorta. As a result, his contributions don’t always earn headlines. But in this game, when the Lions needed a big play, he caught a pass and scampered his way through Tampa Bay’s defense for a gain of 29, amid a tightly contested 10-10 ballgame.
Running back Craig Reynolds, a product of Kutztown University, also arrived in 2021. He’s RB3 behind two stars. His opportunities to contribute on offense are few and far between, but this staff has a knack for picking spots. The last time these teams played, in Week 6, Reynolds was thrust into action, with both Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery dealing with injuries. He provided perhaps the block of the year, paving the way for St. Brown to score in a 20-6 win over the Bucs.
On Sunday, the Lions went back to Reynolds — his first rush attempt since Halloween — on a fourth-down run he finished off in the end zone. Touchdown, Lions.
4th and Goal? Lions are going for it.
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2024
And finally, as the Lions looked to close out the game with one final stop, it came down to their defense. A group that has been questioned, doubted, criticized all season needed a play. It got it from Derrick Barnes, a fourth-round linebacker who took three years to emerge as a starter on this defense. It was his first career interception, and it helped the Lions punch their ticket to the NFC Championship Game.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 21, 2024
“They all had a vision, and we did, too,” Barnes said in the locker room. “That’s why you push yourself each and every week, each and every day. Because we know the potential that we have, and we don’t accept anything less.”
“We’re going to the NFC Championship Game with that group of guys,” Campbell said. “And they love football, they play football and that’s what they respect, and they respect their teammates and not anything else. And when you’re able to care more about the person next to you than … about yourself, you can do some pretty special things, and that’s where we’re at with this group.”
That’s how these Lions are comprised. They are unlike any Lions team that came before them, and they’re proving that when it matters most. They keep winning because of what they went through together. They keep advancing, they have proof of concept and are now looking to prove to others they’re for real. They will head to San Francisco for an opportunity to play for this franchise’s first Super Bowl.
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After the game, when the scrum around St. Brown dispersed following his comments about changing the perception, I stuck around and asked him if he feels that perception changing, based on what the Lions are doing. His answer was telling, providing a peek inside the mind of a player chosen to play for these Detroit Lions.
“Kind of,” he said. “Not really. I mean, we’ll see. Next week, we got the game picks. They’ll probably have San Fran winning. I feel like you just gotta keep winning. If we win next week, we’re lucky enough to go to the Super Bowl. I think winning cures everything. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Look what it’s already done for this franchise.
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(Photo of Amon-Ra St. Brown: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)
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