Lions turn attention to 49ers after ousting Bucs in playoffs

January 21, 2024, 9:49 PM

DETROIT -- On Jan. 21, 2021, Dan Campbell delivered a fiery message that became known as the "kneecaps" speech during his hourlong introductory news conference as new coach of the Detroit Lions.

"So, this team is going to be built on, we're going to kick you in the teeth, right? And when you punch us back, we're going to smile at you," Campbell told reporters. "And when you knock us down, we're going to get up and, on the way up, we're going to bite a kneecap off. All right?"

On Sunday, exactly three years to the date of that speech, Campbell had the Lions celebrating a 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field that put them in the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 32 years.

"I envisioned that we would have a chance to compete with the big boys, and that's where we're at," Campbell said afterward. "All you got to do is get in, and it's about placing yourself in the very best position to where you can move. You get a home game and maybe you get a second home game, and now all of a sudden it gets a little easier."

The Lions now have captured multiple playoff wins in a season for just the third time in franchise history -- joining the 1952 and 1957 seasons, when they won NFL championships (before the Super Bowl era). Detroit will visit the San Francisco 49ers with the NFC title on the line next Sunday.

Under Campbell's direction, the Lions have gone from one of the league's worst teams in 2021 (3-13-1) to their first conference title appearance since the 1991 campaign. His players are all-in while following his lunch-pail leadership style.

"I owe that man, everything, and I'll put it all on the line for him, and now I'm just happy to finally see where we are right now," Lions offensive lineman Penei Sewell said. "And we've got a lot more left in the tank, a lot more meat on the bone, so that's what we're shooting for."

Quarterback Jared Goff said the Lions are "not here by accident," with the coaching staff and front office in place -- a group that includes general manager Brad Holmes -- helping shape the roster.

"I don't want to say this arrogantly, but we expected to win the first game (in the wild-card round against the Los Angeles Rams), we expected to win this game and now we get to go to a game we expected to be in against a really good team at their place -- and we're going to come into it expecting to win," Goff said. "It'll be a tough game, but it'll be fun."

The Niners opened as 7-point favorites, via ESPN BET.

In the fourth quarter alone versus Tampa Bay, Goff completed 11 of 12 attempts for 131 yards with a scoring strike. Goff finished the game with 287 passing yards and a career playoff-best two passing touchdowns, and he received big contributions from the Lions' 2023 draft class. Sam LaPorta, the 34th pick, had 65 receiving yards on nine receptions, the most by a rookie tight end in a playoff game in NFL history.  Jahmyr Gibbs, the No. 12 pick, gave the Lions a 24-17 lead with 13:13 remaining in the fourth on a 31-yard touchdown run. Gibbs became the second player in Lions history with a rushing TD in back-to-back playoff games (Doak Walker also did it in the 1952 and 1953 NFL title games), and the first to do so in a single postseason. Gibbs rushed for 74 yards to go with 40 receiving yards.

Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes made a game-sealing interception off Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield on a short pass in the middle of the field with 1:39 left in the game that had Lions fans roaring at Ford Field.

Campbell, a former tight end who played three seasons for the Lions (2006 to 2008), could relate to their excitement. He is now the eighth different coach since the 1970 merger to reach the conference championship game with a team for which he played. He said the moment isn't one he's taking for granted.

"It's not the first thing you think of if you go to L.A. or just in general," Campbell said of Detroit. "You've got the sun, you've got the beach, you've got plenty of other things going on. And here, man, it's harsh winters, auto industry, blue collar, things aren't always easy. And I just think, that's what we're about. You want something the city can be proud of.

"You can look at those guys and say, 'Man, I can back that guy. I can back that team. I can resonate with those group of guys. They're kind of salty. They don't quit. They play hard.' And so, I feel like we've done that. And I think these guys, they have a kinship with this city and this area, and they love it, man, and ultimately, that's what you want. Now, a year from now, two years, we'll be getting booed, maybe; that's a whole other deal, though. But right now, life's good, and I'm glad we could deliver that."

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