Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

Jed Jacobsohn/AP

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell reacts while speaking to reporters after their loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

CNN
 — 

The Detroit Lions are used to all kinds of disappointment. From failed draft picks and winless seasons to playoffs misses and long-term injuries, supporting the team has not made for a charmed existence.

But before Sunday, playoff collapse wasn’t something Lions fans were accustomed to – they are now.

The Lions held a 17-point lead at halftime in their NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, knowing 30 minutes stood between them and the organization’s first ever Super Bowl appearance.

However, in a shocking second-half performance, the Lions couldn’t stop the 49ers who produced a historic comeback – scoring in each of their possesions – to win 34-31 and advance to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

The collapse and resulting loss ended the dreams of the visitors and those back home in the Motor City.

“It’s like getting your heart ripped out. It’s hard,” Detroit head coach Dan Campbell told reporters afterwards. “We weren’t doing back flips (at halftime), like: ‘All right, we’ve got this thing won.’

“They know better. We talked about it. We knew they would make a run in the second half. We talked about it. We knew we would have to weather the storm in the second half, so when they started to make a push, we weren’t surprised. We just couldn’t counter back. And we’ve always been able to counter back. We just couldn’t quite do it in this one.”

For a franchise which has so often been associated with disappointment and losing, the 2023 season had been a source of extreme joy.

The Lions won 12 games in the regular season, earned their first-ever NFC North division title, won their first playoff game in 32 years and won two postseason games for the first time since 1957.

In short, this version of the Lions – led by the charismatic and infectious Campbell – was exorcising many of the organization’s prior demons.

For one of the NFL’s oldest franchises, to have never made a Super Bowl appearance was a blemish on the team’s history but had always seemed like a far-away aspiration. However, the 2023 edition of the Lions made that dream a realistic prospect and the team was one win away from making history.

And its NFC Championship Game in San Francisco couldn’t have started any better.

By halftime, Detroit had amassed a 24-7 lead. The Lions offensive line and rushing game was dominating the game, producing 148 yards on the ground and three rushing scores in the opening periods.

Detroit fans began to believe. After all, teams leading by 17 or more points at halftime in a conference championship game were 21-0, per the NFL.

However, in the second half, it all went wrong. The 49ers offense began to wake up, the Lions offense struggled and some of Campbell’s fourth down decisions didn’t go as planned.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Lions wide receiver Josh Reynolds fails to make a catch and convert a fourth down in the third quarter against the 49ers in the NFC Championship.

Twice in the second half, Campbell chose to forgo field goal attempts on fourth down to try to extend drives for possible touchdowns. But on both occasions, Detroit was unable to convert and possession was handed back to San Francisco.

Despite the ensuing result and the emotions that come with it, Campbell doesn’t regret going for it on both occasions.

“I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell told reporters. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do. And I wanted to get the upper hand back.

“And it’s easy hindsight, and I get it. I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. And that’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through. It wasn’t able to work out, but I don’t, I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig, man. But [it] just didn’t work out.”

The heartbreak was compounded with the offense’s inability to continue to score and one big mistake crept in – rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled the ball to gift possession back to the 49ers.

In the end, San Francisco completed an extraordinary 17-point comeback to book its spot in Super Bowl LVIII where it will face the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

49ers quarterback Brock Purdy shakes hands with Lions quarterback Jared Goff after San Francisco beat the Lions.

The 17-point comeback is tied for the third-largest comeback in a conference championship game in NFL history, according to the NFL.

Although their season was over in the most heartbreaking fashion, the rest of season might signal a change of fortunes for the previously down-on-its-luck franchise.

But Campbell recognizes the opportunity they had this season.

“I told those guys, this may have been our only shot. Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No,” he said. “But I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware, and it’s going to 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 other thing, once we get to the offseason, then we have no shot of getting back here.”

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