Why Dan Campbell and his Detroit Lions team face a true turning point Sunday vs. Vikings

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s bear-his-soul honesty is still his most enduring trait.

“Look, it burns, of course, it burns me,” Campbell said, ripping his chest open and letting everybody see the ache and regret inside while talking about the mistakes he made coaching against the Minnesota Vikings in a 29-24 loss on Sept. 25.

“I mean, that’ll be there until the day I die,” Campbell said on Wednesday afternoon. “That’s not going to go away.“

Immediately after the game, he admitted that he had blown it. He regretted going for a field goal instead of putting the ball in the hands of his offense in the fourth quarter, and that single decision — that blown game — takes on even more importance this week because the Lions face face the Vikings again this Sunday.

“There’s things that I’ll never forget because that to me — I let my players down,” Campbell said. “And it’s hard enough to have success and to win in this League without your coach doing something that pulls you back and I felt like that was one of those.”

But now, everything seems different, and that loss has taken on a new importance.

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Suddenly, the Lions are on a hot streak; and they have a legit shot at the playoffs, if they keep winning.

Still, it’s hard not to look back, especially this week and think: man, if they had only won that game, they would be in a tremendous playoff position.

“I can’t wallow in that, and let that pull me down,” Campbell said. “I mean it is what it is, and it happened for a reason.”

Think of the pendulum that Campbell has ridden this season.

He went from the star of the HBO series, “Hard Knocks” — the fun lovin’ quote machine.

To a coach on the hot seat after losing six of his first seven games — the heat got so intense that owner Sheila Hamp felt the need to hold a press conference to show her support.

To a second-year coach who is guiding a group of youngsters, showing them how to win — and the Lions have won four of their last five.

Just wild.

“Honestly, I think us losing five in a row is why we’re where we’re at right now, so that’s kind of how I look at it,” he said. “Maybe we needed this to happen to get to where we’re at right now at this point.”

Of course, it’s far easier to be enduring when you are winning.

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The Lions are in such a weird place.

This team that once lost five straight and is just 5-7 overall is favored to beat the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings on Sunday because, well, why the hell not?

And if they beat the Vikings, everything will seem possible. The playoffs? Sure, still possible. Just keep winning. But everything hinges on Sunday. This game has turned into the great magnifier. If they win it, everything will suddenly get bigger. Expectations will take another leap, and so will possibilities.

If they win, all of this becomes even more real. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

“Stay the course,” Campbell said. “Stay the course. This is a big one because it’s the next one, and for us, of course, there’ll be things about it because it’s fun. It’s exciting, a division opponent coming to our place. We know we’ll have a packed house, so the energy will be there, but it’s the next one, and we’ve done things a certain way now for a while and have gained confidence from it, and it’s all about just stay the course. No shortcuts, no detours, just stay the course for what we’ve been doing.”

There are a few other weird things about this game.

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Do you remember how the Lions traded T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings? How it felt like they were throwing in the towel?

Well, the Lions have won four of five since then.

“Yeah, well certainly, we’ve got a good feel of who he is as a player, but he brings an element to the middle of the field for them,” Campbell said. “He’s gone over there and done a nice job.”

Defense has made massive strides

One thing to remember about that first Vikings game: It was “The Gamblin’ Dan Show.”

The only reason the Lions had a 14-0 lead in the first quarter was because they converted three fourth downs midway through the first half.

But the luck ran dry. Twice, they drove inside the Vikings 36, but didn’t come away with points.

Some of that was on Campbell’s decisions. But the players blew it, too. The Lions’ secondary was penalized seven times. It got to the point where the Vikings best offense was just throw the ball in the general direction of a wide receiver and wait for the flag.

But now, they are playing cleaner football. More sound.

“I know we’re better,” Campbell said. “We’re better than we were when we played them the first time. Certainly, our defense is better. It’s a lot better. We’ve come a long way, and there again, it’s a credit to (Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) and his staff and the players. Just continuing to work through it, and we’re doing some things right here, and I just go back — there’s a lot of confidence right now. Guys understand the plan.”

Maybe, the most encouraging thing about this team is the number of rookies who are contributing.

From Aidan Hutchinson’s sacks.

To the improving core built around Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph and Malcom Rodriguez.

To the sudden ermgence of James Houston, who seems to do something amazing every time he gets on the field.

“It’s a sign of growth,” Campbell said. “It’s a sign of — you don’t know how it’s always going to work, but you draft these guys for a reason. That’s a credit to (Lions general manager) Brad (Holmes) and our scouts, scouting department, everybody. But you’re hopeful and you see something in them, you don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we’ve been fortunate, all those guys have played a hand and contributed for us and had some big roles and production for us.”

Maybe, that’s the true endearing charm of this team, not only Campbell’s genuine honesty, but the feeling that this team is genuinely improving. That this is real.

This doesn’t feel like the end of the story.

It’s just getting started.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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