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Matthew Coller: The Lions executed their plan

Detroit tore it all down and struggled in 2021. Now they are in the NFC title game

When the Detroit Lions traded Matthew Stafford, you thought they were going to be bad for a very long time. You scoffed at Jared Goff. He won’t be there long, you figured.

When Dan Campbell was introduced as the head coach of the Lions and promptly said his teams were going to bite opponents’ kneecaps, you laughed at him. Football nutjob, that guy.

When the Lions started the 2021 season 0-10-1, you figured the city of Detroit would never recreate the early 90s. They’ll be bad forever.

When the Lions did Hard Knocks before 2022 and Campbell was brought to tears by his passion for the franchise, you figured he would be crying a lot more when he got fired at the end of the year.

When the Lions started 2022 with one win in the first seven games, you said “same old Lions.”

Even when they beat the Packers to knock Green Bay out of the playoff race and end Aaron Rodgers’ Wisconsin tenure, you still thought they probably just elevated to the middle. They are still the Lions, after all.

When they won the division and produced a top-five scoring offense behind Goff and a bunch of playmakers they drafted along the way, there was still hope for all your “they’re still the Lions” takes of the past. A first-round playoff loss would do the trick.

Instead they beat the Rams and Stafford in the Wild Card round. Goff came up big in the biggest moments.

And then on Sunday, all the struggles that went into a rebuilding project that was the vision of general manager Brad Holmes officially came to fruition. The Lions put 31 points on the tough Tampa Bay Bucs defense at a rockin’ Ford Field and picked off Baker Mayfield on the final drive to seal a trip to the NFC Championship.

Don’t look now, the Lions are 22-7 in their last 29 games and one game away from the Super Bowl. It’s official: They aren’t the same old bumbling Lions.

It wasn’t that long ago that they were firing another coach and GM and completely tearing their entire roster to pieces in order to start rebuilding.

Sometimes tanking is talked about as some back-alley trick. But in Detroit’s case it was simply living in reality. They elected not to try to build around Stafford in his late prime and completely hit the reset button instead, aiming to get younger and develop talent to be a consistent contender rather than a team scrambling around a veteran QB. Everything that wasn’t nailed down went out the door and the roster was rebuild from scratch.

Over three years Holmes stocked up 23 draft picks and created a squad around Goff filled with rising stars on rookie contracts. Among those recently selected players who played a key role in their 31-23 win over Tampa Bay were: LT Penei Sewell, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, S Ifeatu Melifonwu, DE Aidain Hutchinson, WR Jameson Williams, RB Jahmyr Gibbs, TE Sam LaPorta, DB Brian Branch.

Some of those picks were were terrific finds and crafty GM’ing. Some were a product of drafting extremely high and stocking up capital. The odds increase for a decision maker to look clever when he’s picking 10 times in the top 100 over the last two seasons and seven of those in the top 50.

Certainly the Lions needed some luck. Jacksonville passed on Hutchinson to take Trevon Walker with the No. 1 overall pick last year. They took a risk in drafting a running back and nailed the pick. They traded away TJ Hockenson to draft a tight end who turned out to be just as good. They hired the right offensive coordinator in Ben Johnson, who will most certainly be a head coach in 2024. They drew the middling 9-8 Bucs who defeated a stumbling Eagles team in the first round.

Nobody ever said it didn’t take things falling the right way. They could have been the Jets and had Zach Wilson and Aaron Rodgers’ Achilles ruin their rags-to-riches story.

No matter what percentage belongs to luck and how much goes Detroit’s process, the Minnesota Vikings now have to deal with the fact that the NFC Championship version of the Lions is here to stay. Some players, including Goff, will get more expensive but per Detroit will have the seventh most cap space in the NFL to start the offseason and they have four more top-100 draft picks.

Can the Vikings look up at the NFC North champions and compare roster for roster? Not even close. They have a superstar receiver and left tackle and a handful of reasonably exciting young players like Ivan Pace Jr. and Jordan Addison and very little else to call “foundational pieces.” Danielle Hunter is a free agent. Jordan Hicks is a free agent. Harrison Smith may retire. They only have two top-100 picks.

Oh, and the Vikings have a quarterback decision to make. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is set to hit free agency if the Vikings do not give him an extension before the start of free agency.

So far the Vikings “competitive rebuild” plan has had its ups and downs. They won 13 games in 2022 and then fell short against the New York Giants at home in the Wild Card round. They cleared out future cap space by moving on from older players last offseason and were off to a 4-4 start that saw Cousins play some of his best football but when he tore his Achilles they still found a way to win just enough games to take them out of the Caleb Williams/Drake Maye sweepstakes. They have money to work with in free agency but will have tons of competition from teams that have recently reset like the Chicago Bears.

The question the Vikings brass should be asking is: How can they keep up? Is that by bringing back an expensive 36-year-old quarterback recovering from a serious injury? Is that by looking to have a 2021 Lions type season next year? Is that by trading away Justin Jefferson? Is that by drafting Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. or JJ McCarthy? Is that by trading their future draft capital to get Jayden Daniels?

There is no easy answer. It’s very difficult to see how they could extend Cousins and then sign enough talent to go toe-to-toe with a young star-laden team. And Cousins isn’t Goff. They can’t rebuild around him. When Goff joined the Lions he was 27 years old. It wasn’t going to be a last dance for him. There was time to let him grow into being Detroit’s franchise QB. It isn’t clear that Cousins will be playing football by 2025.

But how do they maintain the “competitive” part when the North is so much tougher than when Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell arrived? That may not be possible with out having a reset year of their own. It may not be possible without moving on from some players they like, just like the Lions with Stafford. It may not be possible without risking everyone’s future on drafting a quarterback and hoping he becomes the next Jordan Love and develops into a QB who can be one quarter away from the title game.

Living in reality got the Lions here. Now the Vikings might have to take a page out of their book in order to start closing the gap because these aren’t the same old Lions. These Lions now have as many playoff wins this year as the Vikings do since Brett Favre was in purple. They can’t ignore that roar.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown celebrates the 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC divisional round at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown celebrates the 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC divisional round at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.