The coming months will be difficult for the Detroit Lions.
The Lions have not been in this situation in the 21st century. We are familiar with disappointing losses amid disappointing seasons. Very rarely have we experienced a loss like this.
At one point in time, the Lions had a stranglehold on this game. Up 24-7 at halftime, the Lions had dominated the first half and looked primed for the big stage in two weeks time. Instead, the team collapsed in gut-wrenching fashion, failing to score a point until the dying moments of the game. All the hope from this successful season was snuffed out.
Another offseason lies ahead. The Lions bear new crowns—NFC North winners, playoff winners—but at the moment, it does little to ease the woe from this loss.
For the final time this season, let’s examine some takeaways.
It may have been an exciting season full of growth from these Lions, but it ends the same way: looking toward the next season. This will sting all offseason, especially with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson potentially leaving for a head coaching gig—and taking some assistant coaches with him to boot. It’s optimistic to say that the Lions will be here again, and the pieces are certainly there, but there will continue to be that lingering doubt that this was all we get: a season full of emotion ending in misery.
I genuinely hope that this is just the beginning for these Lions. If anything, I am disappointed with how it ended. The Lions had the victory and a Super Bowl appearance in their grasp. Coming so close and failing feels just as bad as never reaching this point in the first place. Yet that is also something for personal growth. No longer should playing .500 football be the benchmark for the Lions. This is the brightest the Lions have been in decades. Wallowing in the gloom will achieve little, and it does a disservice to the season that was. We should be happy and proud of what was achieved, even if the ending is bittersweet.
Embarrassing in the national spotlight
Most of the nation was supporting a Detroit Lions Super Bowl appearance, especially in the wake of the Kansas City Chiefs booking their ticket earlier in the day. For one, it would have meant a fresh face in the big dance. It also had the billing of an exciting matchup, a rematch of the season opener. The NFL season started with Lions versus Chiefs and it could have ended with Lions versus Chiefs.
Instead, the Lions collapsed in historic and embarrassing fashion. This Lions team won’t be remembered nationally for their breakthrough season. They will instead be known for blowing one of the largest halftime leads in conference championship history. For a franchise that has fought incredibly hard to remove the stain of the previous regime’s struggles, it certainly puts a damper on things. The Lions had a chance to truly cement themselves as a respectable threat in the eyes of the national media and they blew it. This team is young enough and talented enough to return to this point, but until such a time, the Lions will have their doubters and critics.
Dan Campbell mismanages the game—but not how you think
Dan Campbell will catch flak for the inevitable future for his decisions to go for it on fourth down, twice in the second half. However, I think the blame toward Campbell largely lies elsewhere.
The first attempt was an incompletion to Josh Reynolds that Reynolds flat-out dropped. The Lions, up 24-10 at the time, passed up a 45-yard field goal attempt. Analytics agreed with the decision (not factoring in kicker Michael Badgley, either):
---> DET (24) @ SF (10) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 29, 2024
DET has 4th & 2 at the SF 28, Q3 07:03
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+2.2 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete short left to J.Reynolds (G.Odum). pic.twitter.com/h3IMpnXxWK
The second attempt was following the third quarter collapse, as Detroit now trailed 27-24. Faced with a fourth-and-3 from the San Francisco 30, the Lions again went for it and again failed to convert. The win probability metrics once again supported the decision:
---> DET (24) @ SF (27) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 29, 2024
DET has 4th & 3 at the SF 30, Q4 07:32
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+2 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete deep right to https://t.co/doh0k71GtK. Brown. pic.twitter.com/lHeDNCLLSh
Everyone is in a frenzy online about how Dan Campbell cost the Lions a trip to the Super Bowl because of not kicking in these situations. Yet Badgley is not a kicker that the coaching staff has had much faith in (which makes his 54-yarder against the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card even more surprising). Badgley in his career is 37-of-48 from 40-to-49 yards. He was signed to the practice squad on December 29 after losing the preseason kicking battle. The Lions did not leave six points on the board—these were far from automatic. Jake Moody of the 49ers missed a 48-yard attempt himself earlier in the game.
My biggest gripe with Campbell occurred on the final Lions drive of the season. It was a drive that ended with a Jameson Williams touchdown, but the game was already doomed because of the prior play. On third down from the goal line, the Lions ran the ball up the middle for a loss of two yards. The yardage was negligible in the grand scheme of things, but the real fault lies with the clock. Due to the rush attempt with one minute left, the Lions burned the first of their three timeouts.
Though the Lions scored on the following play, they now had to rely on an onside kick to come back. This was completely avoidable and inexcusable. Had they kept the three timeouts, they had a contingency plan: even with a failed onside kick, the defense could still potentially force a three-and-out. The odds of winning in that situation are still slim, but it at least gives you room after a failed onside kick.
No execution, no excuses
You know what really cost the Lions this game? Execution.
Josh Reynolds dropped two first down conversions that were well within his wheelhouse. Kindle Vildor had a gifted interception bounce off his facemask and into the arms of Brandon Aiyuk. Jahmyr Gibbs, after wowing the nation in the first half, fumbled the first touch of the ensuing drive. On defense, there were missed tackles galore. Brock Purdy had 48 rushing yards thanks to a lack of wrapping up. Jack Fox had a booming kick that should have been downed at the one-yard line.
Benjamin Solak puts it best:
Expected points lost for DET:— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 29, 2024
Gibbs fumble: -5.5
Aiyuk reception off Vildor facemask: -3.3
Reynolds 4th down drop: -3.2
Incomplete to St. Brown on 4th and 3: -2.6
Even if we KNOW THE LIONS DIDN'T CONVERT, the failed 4th downs weren't as big of swings as the other plays.
The Lions had their fair share of missed moments to secure a victory, but everyone is harping on Campbell’s field goal decisions. The fault lies all over this game. If Reynolds secures that first down catch, then the narrative changes. The Lions have the ball near the San Francisco 20 with a chance to add a touchdown or at least secure themselves an easier field goal. If Vildor catches the ball, then Aiyuk and the 49ers are not at the Detroit four-yard line. If Gibbs doesn’t fumble, then perhaps the Lions answer with a drive of their own and stem the bleeding.
The Lions did not lose this game because of Dan Campbell. They lost this game because of Dan Campbell and his players.
Time for (another) secondary overhaul?
The Lions did not lose this game purely due to their secondary, but it has been a recurring issue all season and leaves a serious lingering question mark entering the offseason. This past offseason was viewed as the overhaul of the secondary, adding veterans Cam Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Emmanuel Moseley to pair with young players Kerby Joseph, Jerry Jacobs, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Brian Branch.
Instead, nearly every player outside of Branch and Melifonwu struggled on a frequent basis. Sutton was frequently beaten in coverage with a nasty tendency to stumble at inopportune times. Gardner-Johnson missed a majority of the season, and even when he played, missed tackles crept into his game. Moseley played a mere two snaps before tearing his other ACL. Joseph and Jacobs regressed, with Joseph often making bad reads and Jacobs relegated to the bench. The Lions ended their season with Kindle Vildor as a starter—he was signed to the practice squad in mid-November!
With Gardner-Johnson and Moseley free agents, coupled with veteran safety Tracy Walker a likely cap casualty, the Lions might need to once again retool their secondary. Another starting cornerback is needed, though you could make a strong argument for two. Safety depth will be needed, perhaps even a starter as Melifonwu is not a lock for the lineup.
The Lions need to do something big this offseason. This current group will not cut it.
Goff caps off an impressive season
For all the fault and blame that will be thrown around, Jared Goff deserves little of it. Had you been told that the Lions would give up 27 unanswered points in the second half, you would assume that Goff had committed a blunder or two.
Instead, Goff was excellent on the day, though he only totaled 273 yards and one touchdown. The connections with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta were once again effective, but it was the complimentary pieces that were largely non-factors. Gibbs had just three catches, while Williams and Reynolds had 25 yards a piece. Goff was sacked twice, but neither play was egregious on his end. The first came when Penei Sewell took the blitzing defender and left Nick Bosa unblocked. The second came with Dan Skipper, playing right tackle, getting bulldozed by Bosa.
It’s a shame the season ended on one of Goff’s better games, and it was a rare instance where the team around him failed.
John’s Turning Point: Kindle Vildor’s missed interception
In a game full of mistakes, this one stands out as the biggest, a true turn of fate in a mere bounce. Vildor was incredibly close to recording an interception off of Purdy but missed it. Worse yet, his failure allowed the ball to stay alive, and Aiyuk made a near-impossible dive to catch the ball.
Instead of an interception—which would have helped quell the sting of the prior failed fourth down attempt—the 49ers were set up on the doorstep for an easy touchdown. The turnover on downs was a tipping point, sure, but this play was the bursting of the dam. Everything went wrong from here.