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Lions Exorcise Decades of Bad Memories With Wild-Card Win Over Rams

Detroit started this season with the highest expectations the team has had in years and exceeded them.

There were three NFL playoff games this weekend and one exorcism. Officially, the Detroit Lions beat only the Los Angeles Rams, but everybody at Ford Field knew better. They beat Matthew Stafford and the Lomas Brown guarantee and breaking news from The Wichita Eagle and the Big Buck and Marty Mornhinweg leaving practice on a Harley-Davidson, and Lions fans know what every one of these things means, and they know we could go on. Oh, man, we could go on. But we won’t because none of it matters, not anymore.

The New England Patriots are starting over, the Pittsburgh Steelers have no quarterback, the Dallas Cowboys are a perennial playoff disaster, the New York Giants need to rebuild and the Detroit Lions just won a playoff game in the most astounding way possible: predictably. They made more plays in high-leverage situations. They kept their poise. They played with energy and intelligence. Their coach matched strategic wits with a brilliant Super Bowl winner on the other sideline. They did all this because this is what they do now. They started the season with their highest expectations in years and exceeded them. The Lions.

Jared Goff lifts both hands up to the sky as the Lions beat the Rams in a wild-card playoff game.

Goff waited a while for this one, but Lions fans had waited much longer.

The last meaningful play of the game showed just a snippet of what is happening in Detroit. The Lions led, 24–23, thanks mostly to superior red-zone play. Stafford, who was breathtaking all night, was waiting to get the ball back. Lions coach Dan Campbell could have run the ball to kill the clock and punted if necessary, but then he wouldn’t be Dan Campbell. He had Jared Goff pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, because he wanted to “put it in [Goff’s] hands and get the ball to our best player,” and it was so simple and straightforward that Goff’s only regret was that he didn’t realize it ended the game. He just figured it was another first down. He missed his cue to celebrate—one of his only mistakes all night.

“He probably had two errors,” Campbell said.

As Campbell said afterward, this was the Lions’ first playoff win in 30 years. It was an incredible streak that actually undersells how bad the Lions have been. Before that single win 30 years ago, the Lions had gone 34 years without a playoff win. If they beat the Eagles of Buccaneers next week—at home again—these Lions will have won as many playoff games as their franchise won from 1958 to 2022.

Goff completed 22 of 27 passes for 277 yards against his old team, then walked into the postgame press conference wearing the Detroit Tigers’ Old English D on his head, just like Stafford used to do. Campbell said Goff “just was locked in all week.” Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, a local kid and burgeoning superstar, said Goff “showed Detroit what he is made of.”

He absolutely did. But Stafford reminded Detroit what he is made of. As Rams coach Sean McVay said, his quarterback “stood in there and was dropping dimes all day.” Some of Stafford’s completions were just preposterous—sidearm missiles into tiny openings, arcing grenades over defenders. He looked like one of the most valuable players in the NFL, which he is.

Has any trade in NFL history ever worked out so well for everybody involved?

Stafford finally got to play with an elite team and for a great head coach, and he won a Super Bowl. McVay saved himself from a lifetime of wondering why his offense managed three points in his previous Super Bowl appearance.

Nervous Lions fans watch their team in a wild-card game against the Rams

Lions fans: You can exhale now.

The Lions used the return from the trade to build one of the best rosters in the NFL. Declaring who “won” a trade that included so many draft picks is always a bit silly—the trade was one move, and the draft choices (and draft-day trades) were others. But the Lions nailed this, and it started with acquiring Goff.

Three years ago, McVay was so down on Goff that he was ready to turn to John Wolford instead. The Lions gave Goff the two things he needed most: first, an organization that believed in him, and then a premier offensive line. They topped it off by giving him a relentlessly creative offensive coordinator, Ben Johnson. Is Goff an elite quarterback? Well, on this team, he is.

Stafford has shown he was not just a stat-stuffer. Goff has shown he was not just propped up by McVay. They have both shown what Detroit fans have known all along: A franchise needs to find its quarterback and do a lot of other things right.

The Lions are one of those franchises now. They are probably a pass rusher and a top cornerback shy of being at the top of the league, but worse teams than this have made the Super Bowl. The crowd chanted Goff’s name throughout the day. It was a level of adoration Goff never would have gotten in Los Angeles.

“The building was humming,” Campbell said. “I swear, you could feel the electricity in the tunnel.”

The whole city is humming. So, finally, is the team.