Detroit Lions’ upset win makes a big statement to NFL. And more importantly, to themselves

Detroit Free Press

People are uncomfortable with labels, and rightly so. They feel reductive and inadequate.

Yet here we are, trying to make sense of what the Detroit Lions’ 30-12 dismantling of the mighty Arizona Cardinals all meant.

Was it a mirage? Dumb luck catching a good team on a short week? Maybe karmic payback for all those close losses?

Call it whatever you want. For me, I will succumb to a label only because it fits so well it must be applied to the thorough thumping the Lions gave the Cardinals: statement game.

SHAWNWINDSOR: Forget about the NFL draft: Lions needed this win more for their future

Because that’s what this game was, a statement from the Lions to the rest of the NFL, but mostly to themselves. A struggling team shouting from the rooftops that they had this kind of performance in them all along and they knew it.

It’s easy for anyone to look at the Lions (2-11-1) and the Cardinals (10-4) and think this was a fluke. But I’ll tell you two things about that. One, there’s no such thing as a fluke 30-12 win in the NFL. And two, if you’ve watched the Lions closely this season, you know how often they’ve been close to victory.

And how about this? They’ve suddenly won two of their past three games. And on the heels of last week’s disastrous 38-10 loss at Denver that eliminated them from playoff contention, they answered a season’s worth of disappointment with this statement, a definitive declaration that they aren’t rolling over for anyone.

“Whoever the opponent is, we’re going to go out there and compete,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “We’ve had games against some of the top teams in the league where we’ve been really close. And then we’ve had games where we haven’t played as well and maybe we’ve gotten blown out a little bit.

[ What Lions’ win over Arizona Cardinals means for 2022 NFL draft positioning ]

“So hopefully we can start to see some momentum and we can keep that identity. Because if we execute our job we can stick to the identity and the game plan we want. It’s tough if the offense isn’t moving the ball to be able to run the ball, be able to run the play actions. … It was fun to see everything come together and just kind of dominate in all phases, and I think a lot of guys stepped up.”

You could point to players like safety Will Harris, who was pressed into playing cornerback. Or running back Craig Reynolds, an undrafted afterthought technically still on the practice squad, who rushed for 112 yards in his seventh NFL game.

But the player who really stepped up was quarterback Jared Goff, who shook off a season’s worth of uneven play and turned in his best game as a Lion.

Goff recently lost his best receiver, tight end T.J. Hockenson, for the season and he once again didn’t have his top two running backs. But he never seemed hampered by the talent deficit. He was patient early, tough when he had to be, and smart, accurate and lethal most of the game.

“Today is the fun part about it, for sure,” Goff said. “But you have to fight through some of those dark times to get there. It’s been obviously a long year for all of us with the Lions, but days like today make it all worth it to put that extra time in and do all the right things.”

Goff entered with an amazing record against the Cardinals. In eight previous games, he was 7-1 with 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 103 passer rating. But that success came with the Rams. The Lions are just starting a rebuild and Goff was blunt about the discrepancy between his new team and his old NFC West foe.

“On paper,” he said, “we don’t match up with them. On paper we don’t. … We have a good coaching staff that we believe in and a good fight to us that allows us to win games like this.”

MORE FROM MONARREZ: Was the win over the Cardinals one of the biggest upsets in Lions history?

Games like this are statements, even if Lions coach Dan Campbell denied they exist.

“No,” he said. “I mean, look, I don’t see statement win. Here’s what I see. We knew we could win this game and we feel like that every week. But we knew we could, but we knew we had to play a certain type of game, like any week, if we can execute the game plan.”

Yes, coaches and their game plans. Surely it will always be a win if you just preheat the oven and follow the instructions. Of course, football is about a lot more than plans. It’s about people. And if you can get enough of them to believe, a team can do anything.

That’s why I have to disagree with Campbell. He has created this culture of belief for the Lions and now it has not only come to fruition, but it has also planted the seeds for future success.

“And what would make it even more worth (the extra effort this season),” Goff said, “is if we were able to finish these last three games off the right way and go into the offseason going, ‘OK, we did some things there.’ And we can have a little bit of confidence coming into next season.”

That’s the key to everything the Lions have been working for this season: A reason to believe in the future. And if the winning starts next season, you can bet the players and coaches will invoke this victory over Arizona. They will reference it as a beginning, talk about what it meant, discuss the possibilities that it revealed, because there are many statements that deserve to be made about this game.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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