Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

In the history of conference championship weekend, there may not be a team that has more of a national backing than the one that currently exists with the Detroit Lions. Unless you’re a San Francisco 49ers fan, it’s safe to assume that you are one of the millions of NFL fans out there who, for three hours on Sunday night, will be temporarily a Lions fan. 

While their current run could be defined as storybook, Dan Campbell’s team is not Cinderella. In fact, you can argue with conviction that the Lions have been the NFL’s most consistent team this season, starting with their win over the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs back in Week 1. 

Led by Jared Goff, the Lions have one of the NFL’s most talented offenses that has been especially lethal in the red zone. Defensively, the Lions are an aggressive, hard-hitting group that has taken on the attitude of their head coach. The unit had several big moments during Detroit’s recent playoff wins over the Rams and Buccaneers. 

So, how did the Lions get here? Let’s take a look by reviewing Detroit’s top moves in free agency, the draft and the regular season, as well as Detroit’s main turning point and key win. 

2023 notable free agent signings 

RB Craig Reynolds (re-signed)CB Cam SuttonRB David Montgomery DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson LB Alex Anzalone (re-signed)DL John Cominsky (re-signed)OL Graham Glasgow 

The Lions have gotten a lot of production out of their 2023 free agent class. At the top of that list of Montgomery, the former Chicago Bear who is enjoying his best season to date. Montgomery’s success, especially early on, helped shoulder rookie Jahmyr Gibbs’ burden while allowing him more time to get settled into life in the NFL. The duo have since become the NFL’s top RB combo. 

One of the team’s more underrated acquisitions was the signing of former Steelers defensive back Sutton, who has helped the Lions’ young defense in more ways than one. 

“Cam’s been unbelievable, man,” Lions pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson told CBS Sports earlier this season. “He’s such a steady force in our locker room and on our team. He’s kind of an old soul. I feel like guys just naturally look to him because everyone loves that old soul vibe. It’s very calming. 

“That’s kind of how I describe Cam. Calm, but man, he’s intense come game time. And I love having him in my corner, as my corner, come game time. It’s great.”

Another defensive back, Gardner-Johnson, is just starting to show what he can do for Detroit’s defense after being injured for most of the season. He came up with an early pick of Baker Mayfield during last week’s win over the Buccaneers while in the process backing up his pregame trash talk of Tampa’s QB. 

2023 top free agent losses 

RB Jamaal Williams (Saints)OL Evan Brown (Seahawks)S DeShon Elliott (Dolphins)LB Chris Board (Patriots)WR DJ Chark (Panthers) 

The Lions also parted ways this past offseason with running back D’Andre Swift when they traded him to the Eagles in exchange for future draft picks. At the time, many questioned the Lions’ decision to part with both Swift and Williams, who last season broke Barry Sanders’ single-season franchise record for touchdown runs. 

No one is questioning those decisions now. While Swift played well for Philadelphia, Williams endured the worst season of his career in New Orleans. The Lions, meanwhile, finished fifth in the NFL in rushing and first in touchdown runs during the regular season. 

Initially, it looked like losing Brown would be a considerable loss. But the Lions, likely anticipating his departure, re-signed Glasgow, whose impact this season has been nothing short of significant. Injuries led to Glasgow to starting at center and at both guard positions earlier this season. His hard work was rewarded when Campbell made him the Lions’ starting right tackle back in early November. 

2023 draft picks 

Round 1, No. 1 overall: RB Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama)Round 1, No. 18 overall: LB Jack Campbell (Iowa)Round 2, No. 34 overall: TE Sam LaPorta (Iowa)Round 2, No. 45 overall: S Brian Branch (Alabama) Round 3, No. 68 overall: QB Hendon Hooker (Tennessee)Round 3, No. 96 overall: DT Brodric Martin (Western Kentucky)Round 5, No. 152 overall: OT Colby Sorsdal (William & Mary) Round 7, No. 219 overall: WR Antoine Green (North Carolina) 

A big reason for the Lions’ success has been the contributions they’ve received from their early draft picks. Detroit’s best rookie has been LaPorta, whose play this season warranted his first Pro Bowl selection. 

LaPorta developed instant chemistry with Goff; he caught 18 passes in Detroit’s first three games and finished the season tied with Amon-Ra St. Brown for the team lead with 10 touchdown grabs. And despite getting dinged up during the team’s Week 17 loss to Dallas, LaPorta returned to catch a touchdown in the Lions’ Super Wild Weekend Card win over the Rams before catching 9 of 11 targets against the Bucs. 

Gibbs started slow, but he finished his rookie season with nearly 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns runs and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. He’s also avoided hitting the proverbial rookie wall, which has allowed him to continue to play at a high level in the playoffs. Gibbs’ 31-yard touchdown run against Tampa, early in the fourth quarter, gave Detroit the lead for good. 

Campbell and Branch have become key contributors to Detroit’s defense. Campbell had 95 tackles and two sacks while playing in all 17 regular-season games. Branch started his NFL career with a bang with a pick six against Patrick Mahomes in Week 1. He had nine tackles and a sack of Mayfield during last week’s win over the Buccaneers. 

Lions 2023 schedule/results 

Week 1

at Kansas City Chiefs

W 21-20 

1-0

Week 2

Seattle Seahawks 

L, 37-31 (OT)           

1-1

Week 3

Atlanta Falcons 

W, 20-6

2-1

Week 4

at Green Bay Packers

W, 34-20 

3-1

Week 5

Carolina Panthers 

W, 42-24

4-1

Week 6

at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

W, 20-6

5-1

Week 7

at Baltimore Ravens 

L, 38-6           

5-2

Week 8 

Las Vegas Raiders 

W, 26-14

6-2

Week 9 

BYE

Week 10 

at Los Angeles Chargers

W, 41-38

7-2

Week 11 

Chicago Bears 

W, 31-26

8-2 

Week 12

Green Bay Packers 

L, 29-22

8-3 

Week 13 

at New Orleans Saints 

W, 33-28           

9-3 

Week 14

at Chicago Bears 

L, 28-13

9-4 

Week 15 

Denver Broncos 

W, 42-17

10-4

Week 16

at Minnesota Vikings 

W, 30-24

11-4 

Week 17 

at Dallas Cowboys 

L, 20-19           

11-5

Week 18 

Minnesota Vikings 

W, 30-20 

12-5

Super Wild Card Weekend      

Los Angeles Rams        

W, 24-23        

13-5

NFC divisional round      

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

W, 31-23           

14-5

Turning point 

Despite a 5-1 start, the Lions’ 38-6 loss in Baltimore in Week 7 caused some to label them as pretenders while casting doubt on their early success. But the Lions quickly quashed those thoughts by winning their next three games and taking total control of the NFC North division in the process. 

Two of those wins were in one-score games against the Chargers and Bears. Those wins showed that, even if the Lions defense gives up points like it did in Baltimore, Goff and the offense are more than able to pick up the slack. The offense scored 41 and 31 points in those games, with Goff completing exactly 70% of his throws. 

Key win 

NFC Super Wild Card Weekend: Lions 24, Rams 23 

Last Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay was epic, but the Lions’ first playoff win in 32 years takes the cake. The win showed that the Lions can rise to the moment while not allowing the hype to get to them. Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, Detroit responded by executing on a high level in all three phases. Leading the way was Goff, who surgically dissected his former team to the tune of 277 yards on 22 of 27 passing. Goff capped off his big night with a perfectly thrown, game-clinching, first-down completion to St. Brown. 

Goff was the headliner, but the Lions defense also stepped up against the Rams. Hutchinson, playing in his first playoff game, sacked Matthew Stafford twice. Linebacker Alex Anzalone had a team-high nine sacks and played a key role in Detroit holding the Rams to 0 of 3 in the red zone. 

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