The Detroit Lions have kicked to the curb that old lament, “same old Lions.” I know that this current version of the Lions under head coach Dan Campbell are anything but the franchise that for so many years took one step forward and three steps backwards. No, these guys are the real deal, and their appearance in the NFC championship game against San Francisco is solid evidence of that fact.
What I also know after having broadcast the Lions and NFL football for 31 years is that winning is all that matters. That means winning your last game. I remember Detroit’s last appearance in the NFC title game. I was there. It was in Washington DC at RFK Stadium. We were fresh off a win over Dallas at the Silverdome and 60 minutes away from a Super Bowl appearance. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mark Champion, the play- by-play voice at the time, and I were geared up and really excited about the game.
Detroit got clobbered, and our dreams were crushed. The dreams of the Lions, and the radio broadcast crew. It was 27-10 at the half, 41-10 at the finish. Our Hall of Famer in the backfield, Barry Sanders, rushed for only 44 yards in 11 carries, but it wasn’t Barry’s fault. The Lions turned it over 3 times, and gave up four sacks. Washington didn’t turn it over, and the Redskins, (at the time) scored a defensive touchdown. Washington threw only 17 passes but two of them were for TD’s. We left the nations capital heartbroken.
For the rest of my career in the Lions broadcast booth, 27 years, I never saw another NFC title game, and I never saw another home playoff game, let alone a playoff win. I realized during that stretch that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. You must make your own luck. You must not have an off day. When you don’t win on the big stage, the stage disappears, and you disappear with it. And, more than anything, I learned there is no guarantee you will ever return to that big stage.
This current Lions team will never disappear from our memory. It’s been a spectacular season. But, history in this league can be cruel. I always think back to Miami quarterback Dan Marino. In his rookie year he’s in the Super Bowl. He becomes a Hall of Famer. He is considered one of the best ever at the position. Yet, he never made another appearance in the Super Bowl. How many times you think he gets asked about that? I’ll bet it’s more than Dan would like to remember.
So, while we will always remember this group as the catalysts of a watershed season. In order to make it an historical season, winning that last game is essential. That’s just the hard reality of this league.
So, like the previous trip in 1991, they are on the road. Their attitude has to be, “so what!” They must be the opposite of what they were in 1991. They cannot turn the ball over. They must rush the ball for more than 100 yards. They can’t give up negative plays, like sacks. Their 3rd down efficiency must continue, which means first down production must be positive. No pre snap penalties.
On defense, I think they must keep McCaffrey as their primary focus. Everything offensively flows through McCaffrey for the 49ers. Run action passing is their bread and butter but with no running game from McCaffrey that is mitigated. No missed tackles. No easy scores. The 49ers have so many weapons that they will make plays…know that, understand that, but don’t let it make you press. Do your job! Don’t try to be a hero. Don’t try and win the game yourself. Maintain your poise on the road.
Bottom line…just win!
And, if the Lions do win, enjoy it. But, never, ever, forget to keep the focus on the real prize. Getting to the Super Bowl is NOT the goal. WINNING the Super Bowl is the goal! When we began this piece, I wrote that in the NFL, “winning is all that matters.” Nothing has changed.