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For Detroit Lions, the pain is not knowing if you’ll ever get back

The Detroit Lions look like a team that’s on the rise, but Dan Campbell knows the future holds no guarantees.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions were on the precipice of doing something they hadn’t in franchise history. Their first-ever Super Bowl appearance was 30 minutes away with a 17-point lead in hand. Then, quite literally, the ball slipped through their hands.

Thanks to a litany of mistakes from Detroit and 27 unanswered points via the San Francisco 49ers, this Lions season ends as so many before it: heartbreak.

And, sure, there are plenty of reasons to hold your head up high after a remarkable season that saw decades-long droughts end. The team is still remarkably young, and the people in positions of power have proven to be extremely capable of their jobs. Long-term success has always been the goal, and this appears to only be a temporary setback.

But this is the NFL. There is never guaranteed success in the future, and the Lions just missed out on a huge opportunity in the present. Lions coach Dan Campbell knows this, and after the team’s gut-wrenching loss in the NFC Championship Game, he dropped the not-so-easy-to-hear truth bomb.

“I told those guys, this may have been our only shot,” Campbell said. “Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware. It’s going to be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was last year. That’s the reality.”

It’s easy to look at the offseason ahead and assume the Lions will be even better in 2024. They’ve got youth, a boatload of salary cap room, and a healthy amount of draft picks. But there will be hardships ahead. The division appears to be on the rise, and Detroit’s exact crew will never be back again together. The Lions could very well lose a coordinator or two to a head coaching job. Several players will move on, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be replaced with better players or players who fit the bigger picture.

Building a team with the right coaches and chemistry is a delicate balance, and it feels like this squad, in particular, had most of those pieces in the right place.

“I’m a firm believer in everything’s got to be right,” Campbell said. “Everybody just thinks that it’s just talent and it’s just coachability, and the more talent you get and the better coaches and they’re more well known, then you’re just automatically going to be good. And that’s not the truth at all. It’s not. Does it help? Yeah, it helps as long as they’re compatible, and there’s a chemistry and there’s teamwork and there’s unselfishness and you leave the egos at home.

“That’s hard. It’s hard to do that. So, you set it up, and now this is going to look different. And it’s gotta be right again. It’s gotta be right. Some of the players, potentially some of the coaches—man, we’ve got to start over. We’ve got to find the right mix, the right balance. It’s gotta be right, because otherwise, I’m a firm believer, you don’t have a chance if it’s not. You’ll become average, quickly.”

Another thing the Lions will have to overcome next year is ramping up the hunger to the same level—or even higher. Given Campbell’s leadership, it seems unlikely that ever goes away, and the Lions coach is already preparing that push.

“If we don’t have the same hunger and the same work (ethic)—which is a whole ‘nother thing once we hit the offseason—then we’ve got no shot of getting back here,” Campbell said. “I don’t care how much better we get, or what we add or what we draft, it’s irrelevant. It’s going to be tough.”

That work will get done. That message is already being heard.

“We’ve got to continue to work,” Alim McNeill said after the game. “You can’t just lay down and think, ‘Oh we’re just going to get back here next year.’ You’ve got to put in the work.”

Detroit will do their best to find the right combination of players, coaches, and attitude to not only duplicate the success of this season but to surpass it. But for the next few hours, days, and likely even weeks and months, it’s going to be hard to get over the opportunity that was just lost.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.