Miscues, bad luck and ladybugs: how the Lions blew their best chance at a Super Bowl | Detroit Lions
In the end, Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions lost the only way they know how: playing aggressively.
Detroit held a 24-7 lead over the San Francisco 49ers at half-time of the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. In less than a quarter, that lead had vanished. Even by the Lions’ standards, this was a special kind of Lion-ing.
How does a 17-point lead evaporate in eight minutes? Miscues, bad luck and ladybugs.
When the inexplicable starts to happen, there’s only so much an NFL head coach can do. You can’t legislate for Josh Reynolds, the team’s reliable receiver, dropping a crucial fourth-down conversion to open a half. Or Jahmyr Gibbs, the team’s star running back, going the wrong way on a hand-off, steaming head-first into a pile of bodies and coughing up a fumble on his own 25-yard line. Or your special teams unit misplaying a perfectly placed punt, knocking the ball into the endzone for a touchback rather than pinning San Francisco at their own goalline.
Most of all, you cannot legislate for 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy launching a ball toward the sporting gods, and being rewarded with the ball bouncing off an opponents’s facemask and into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard completion.
“Before the game, a ladybug landed on my shoe. And you all know what that means,” Aiyuk said after the game, which the Niners won 34-31, while trying to explain his catch. “That’s all I can say. Other than that, I don’t know.”
Aiyuk’s third-quarter grab was the pivot point of the NFC title game. Up until then, the Lions had played a near-perfect game. Brock Purdy was scattershot, throwing the ball into crowded corridors with hope rather than precision. The Niners defense could not slow anything the Lions threw at them.
Then the catch happened. Then Reynolds dropped another catch on third-down. Then the Lions whiffed on a crucial sack. Before you could refill your Stanley cup, it was a tied game.
Amid the frenzy, amid the game slipping away, Campbell stuck to his philosophy. He put the ball in his quarterback Jared Goff’s hands. He went for it on multiple fourth downs rather than kicking field goals to try to stem the bleeding. When he had the shot to reestablish a three-score lead early in the second half and break the Niners’ momentum, he passed up the to kick a field goal. With a chance to tie the game on fourth-and-three with a field goal from the Niners’ 30-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Campbell again declined. It was touchdown or nothing, boom or bust. Goff’s pass fell incomplete – the Niners ran up the field for what proved to be the game-clinching score.
There will be plenty of consternation over the coming days over Campbell’s decision-making. Multiple times, he had opportunities to kick field goals to stop the rot. Instead of chasing the game at the end, the Lions could have been even, with a drive to win it all. Instead, they were left trying to dig their way out of a 10-point hole with time running out.
Campbell’s aggression is fun. It breaks with the norms. It’s because of that aggression – because of the fourth-down decision-making; because of his belief in Goff – that the Lions found themselves in the NFC title game to begin with. Still, it’s tough to square Campbell’s decision to kick a field goal at the end of the first half rather than push for a touchdown with his refusal to kick field goals in the second half. Pragmatism struck Campbell when there was a chance to take a three-score lead into the break, only for the swashbuckler to return in the second half.
But Campbell is unapologetically himself. He turned doubters into believers by betting on his players at every turn. You can’t win with Goff, the theory went. You don’t draft running backs in the first round these days. You don’t use prized assets on tight ends and safeties. You can’t let the analytics govern your fourth-down calls all the time. That’s fun in the regular season, but not on championship Sunday. And yet Campbell did all those things.
The Lions bet against orthodoxy all year long, defying any remaining skeptics. For two quarters on Sunday, this was the team Campbell envisioned when he first took the job: A bully ball offense built around a power-running game; explosive plays in the passing game; a bruising defensive line. The Lions crushed the Niners on both sides of the ball in the first half. All told, they rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns at 6.2 yards a clip. Goff delivered an excellent performance in a losing effort, slinging fire to every portion of the field even as the game began to skid away. A Niners defensive line that’s paid more, collectively, than any other in the league was left chasing ghosts and dust for much of the game.
It’s no wonder, then, that even as the game slipped away, Campbell doubled down.
So they had choked away the lead. So they had made uncharacteristic mistakes. They had a career 76% field goal kicker from between 40 and 49 yards and was just 46.7% from 50-yards or more, and an offense that had been rolling. It made sense for Campbell to go for it rather than kick the field goal. He was going to play the odds; the Lions were going to go down swinging, the way they had all season.
The process – the data dorks tell us – was sound; the results, awful.
If Campbell kicks even one of those field goals, the Lions might have been booking a trip to Vegas today. But to do so would have been a betrayal of the Fighting Campbells’ ethos.
Campbell is more of a chess player than his kneecap-biting persona. But that stuff does matter. All coaches preach the rah-rah culture stuff; Campbell lives it. In three seasons, he’s turned the Lions from a perennial laughingstock into contenders by building a fearless attitude: fearless toward team-building, play-calling and outside ridicule.
The Lions have never reached a Super Bowl. There was a real sense that this was their year. If not to win it all, to at least be admitted to the dance.
That belief existed only because of Campbell. It was his vision, the culture he built and his unrelenting belief in his players that carried the team six quarters from a championship. For much of the season, his courage was rewarded thanks to his players executing. In the biggest game of them all, those same players melted away.
“I understand the scrutiny I will get,” Campbell said after the game. “But, you know, it just didn’t work out.” Aggressiveness carried the Lions to the brink of the Super Bowl. Sloppy mistakes cost them a shot at ending a 60-year title drought.
MVP of the week
L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs. This goes to Sneed but it could be a collective award for the entire Chiefs defense. How is it fair that Kansas are able to roll out the league’s best quarterback, tight end, offensive play-caller and best defensive coordinator? When those four align, you wind up making your fourth Super Bowl in five seasons.
The Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce connection gave the Chiefs a first-half lead in the AFC title game. But they were shut out in the second half, leaving it up to the team’s defense to close the door on a Ravens comeback. Sure, Baltimore’s offense self-combusted in the second half. There were too many wasted opportunities. The Ravens failed to get their run game going despite some early-down success. There were breakdowns along the offensive line. Zay Flowers made crucial mistakes. They coughed up silly penalties. When it was clear the initial gameplan wasn’t working, they failed to adapt. The result was Lamar Jackson embracing a brand of Hero Ball that called on him to force throws and skip reads.
It was a meltdown across all departments. But it was a meltdown forced by Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. The Chiefs held the Ravens to 10 points and forced three critical turnovers. It was another work of art from Spags in the postseason. He ditched some of his traditional looks to throw the Ravens’ offense off-kilter and to bait Jackson into some of his worst habits. By the end of the game, the Ravens’ offense devolved into a formless mess.
Sneed delivered the biggest play on the game. The cornerback forced a touchdown-saving fumble with a punch-out on Flowers, handing the ball back to his offense.
The Chiefs will always be Mahomes’s team. But in a down year for the team’s offense, KC’s defense has delivered. They gave up just 41 points in the AFC playoffs, despite facing the best the conference has to offer.
Video of the week
Any playoff defeat hurts, but this one will sting deeper than usual for Lamar Jackson. He’s played the best all-around football of his career this season, but when the Ravens needed him most, he faltered.
The Ravens’ offense stumbled in the postseason – again. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken received plenty of plaudits this year for overhauling the team’s attack during the regular season. But they hit a brick wall on Sunday.
On 10 possessions against the Chiefs, the Ravens came away with only one touchdown. They had two back-breaking turnovers in the end zone. For much of the season, Monken’s refashioned offense was a symphony. They married the run and pass as well as any team in the league. Jackson was more patient in the pocket – and his supporting cast delivered in big moments. All of that vanished versus the Chiefs, as it did in the first-half against the Texans in the Divisional Round. The run-game was nonexistent. The passing game was pedestrian and predictable.
Baltimore’s defense gave every opportunity to Jackson and Co to turn it around, too. They forced five straight punts in the second-half, handing their soon-to-be MVP a chance for a pair of legacy drives. But Baltimore were ultimately out-coached and out-executed throughout the game. The break-glass plan appeared to be: Lamar will figure it out.
Jackson only turned 27 this month. He will have plenty more chances to win a championship. But he will have few opportunities better than this one.
Stat of the week
Six. That’s the number of first downs Brock Purdy gained with scrambles against the Lions. We were treated to the full Brock Purdy experience on Sunday. After freezing under fire in the first half, Purdy turned facilitator and creator in the second half. When the Niners needed him to deliver down the stretch, he found a way to escape pressure and extend drives with his legs and arm. He picked up 48 yards on the ground, including a 21-yard scramble on third down to set up the game-clinching touchdown.
Elsewhere around the league
Raheem Morris is back in Atlanta. The Falcons named the former Rams defensive coordinator as the team’s new head coach (again). Morris was Atlanta’s interim coach three years ago after the team fired Dan Quinn after a 0-5 start to the season. Morris finished 4-7 as the team’s interim before being replaced by Arthur Smith. After leaving Atlanta, Morris helped guide the Rams’ defense to a Super Bowl title in 2021 and was among the best assistant coaches in the league this season – turning the youngest defense in the NFL into one of the most productive.
What next for Bill Belichick? With only two head coaching vacancies still open, Belichick is facing the prospect of being left out in the cold in this season’s coaching carousel. He interviewed twice in Atlanta but missed out on the job to Morris. Belichick is unlikely to be offered either of the final two openings, in Washington or Seattle. What will the Greatest To Ever Do It do next season? Pick up a TV gig? Serve as defensive adviser elsewhere? Fish? Start a podcast?
The Philadelphia Eagles landed a pair of big-name coordinator to kick off their offseason reboot. Philly decided to bring back head coach Nick Sirianni after the team’s unprecedented collapse, on the promise he would overhaul his staff. Kellen Moore will join the team as offensive coordinator from the Chargers, with Vic Fangio joining as defensive coordinator after leaving Miami.