The Detroit Lions dream playoff run came to a heartbreaking end at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, ending a season that will be remembered by those in Detroit for years to come.
The Lions opened the 2023 NFL season with a Thursday night showcase against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and nearly closed out the NFL season the same way, with all eyes on the Lions and the Chiefs, this time for the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs will play in that game once again after dispatching the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, while the Lions will watch from home after their second-half collapse in San Francisco.
But before the heartbreak of the NFC Championship, the Lions gave their fans reason for hope in the season’s opening week, going into Kansas City and beating the defending champions 21-20.
“I didn’t learn anything,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell would say after the opening night victory. “I got verification on what I already knew.”
CLICK HERE FOR MORE SPORTS COVERAGE ON FOXNEWS.COM
That opening night game fueled a growing optimism in Detroit that the Lions, who had not made the playoffs since 2016, were on a path different from the “same old Lions” of years past. Coming off the high of winning eight of their last 10 games in 2022, narrowly missing the playoffs with a 9-8 record, Lions quarterback Jared Goff outplayed Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and announced that the 2023 Lions would be different.
Despite suffering an overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in their home opener the next week, the Lions would quickly make good on that optimism by rattling off four straight wins and racing out to a lead in the NFC North, a division they had never won.
But that optimism was tested after an embarrassing road loss at the hands of the Ravens in Week 7, who jumped out to a quick 28-0 before halftime and never looked back en route to a 38-6 win.
“They kicked our a–,” Campbell would say after the Ravens game. “Nobody thinks that’s fun, but I know that motivates me for next week, it motivates our team. I know you’ll do any and everything you can not to have that feeling again, so that’s all I mean by that.”
The Lions would not have that feeling again for another four weeks, which saw the team rebound from the blowout loss and start a streak of three consecutive wins, including a thrilling shootout victory in Los Angeles against the Chargers in Week 10. The win streak came to an end at the hands of the rival Green Bay Packers in Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day game, a stretch that would see the Lions drop two of three games when they suffered another double-digit defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears in week 14.
LIONS’ DAN CAMPBELL UNDER FIRE OVER 4TH-DOWN DECISIONS IN LOSS TO 49ERS
The mini-skid raised doubts that the Lions could finish the job and win their first division championship since 1993, but Detroit would quickly ease such fears with a resounding home blowout win over the Denver Broncos in Week 15. A road win against the rival Minnesota Vikings the next week clinched the Lions’ first-ever NFC North crown and guaranteed the first-ever home playoff game at Ford Field, where the Lions began play in 2002.
Week 17 brought a critical road test with seeding on the line against the Dallas Cowboys, a game that ended in controversy after officials claimed that Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker had not reported eligible before catching a potential game-winning two-point conversion pass in the game’s final minute. Replays after the game of Decker having a conversation with the officials seemingly told a different tale, though it was too late to prevent the season’s most stinging defeat.
Despite the controversial loss, the Lions closed out the season with another win against the Vikings and finished 12-5, the first 12-win season for the franchise since 1991.
The Lions storybook season became even more surreal the next week in their first home playoff game in decades, when Detroit welcomed back former franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, who would attempt to end his former team’s dream season as an opponent playing for the Los Angeles Rams. But Goff, the other centerpiece of the trade that also saw several draft picks head to Detroit, would shine against his former team, completing 22 of 27 passes for 277 yards and a score as the Lions secured a narrow 24-23 victory, their first playoff win since 1991.
A Packers upset of the Cowboys in one of the other NFC wild-card games meant Detroit would get yet another opportunity to host a playoff game in the divisional round, an opportunity the Lions would make good on with a 31-23 victory over Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
TRAVIS KELCE, TAYLOR SWIFT SHARE CELEBRATORY KISS AS FANS WONDER IF SHE’LL SHOW UP TO SUPER BOWL LVIII
The Lions carried that momentum into San Francisco Sunday, racing out to a 24-7 first-half lead before a series of mishaps by the Lions and big plays by the 49ers sent the NFC’s number one seed to the Super Bowl and upstart Detroit packing their bags after a historic run.
Along the way, the Lions benefited from strong offensive line play, saw Goff enter the MVP race, received sterling first-team All-Pro seasons by wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and offensive tackle Penei Sewell, and witnessed the promising rookie seasons of draft picks such as running back Jahmyr Gibbs, linebacker Jack Campbell, tight end Sam LaPorta, and safety Brian Branch.
The team will now look forward to 2024 and the holes that need to be filled to give the Lions yet another shot at a Super Bowl run next year. But the 2023 Lions will be savored for years, and Campbell knows there are no guarantees at second chances in football.
CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP
“I told those guys, this may have been our only shot,” Campbell told reporters after Sunday’s crushing defeat. “Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware. And it’s gonna be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was this year. That’s the reality. And if we don’t have the same hunger and the same work – which is a whole ‘nother thing once we get to the offseason – then we got no shot of getting back here.”