Dan Campbell isn’t scared to talk about playoffs and division titles for Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell brought up the playoffs Sunday. He talked about the chance to qualify for the postseason next week in Green Bay. He also talked about winning a division title in the future and hosting playoff games.

The Detroit Lions coach was obviously feeling good, and encouraged, after a 41-10 thumping of the Chicago Bears before a raucous crowd of 66,169 in the home finale at Ford Field. Jubilant fans did the wave late in the game and Campbell continued surfing that high afterward.

“I think it means everything,” he said. “I think it’s just so special. It’s as good as it can get. I mean, seriously you get to go to Lambeau (Field), historic Lambeau, where the top of this division has been Green Bay every year for years and to go earn your right to potentially get in.”

Campbell’s eagerness about facing the Packers in what could amount to a play-in game were echoed by one of the team’s most respected veterans.

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“I mean, I hope it gets flex to Sunday night,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “You know, I really hope it does. Because that’s a historic stadium, historic franchise in the division. We’re playing a divisional opponent. I mean, what else could you want? …

“You want the challenge you. You want all the eyes on you when you’re gonna rise up and try to meet that challenge.”

Campbell and his players have earned the right to speak this way after rebounding from their own thumping last week at Carolina. Just about everything went right. They rushed well, they passed well, they defended well. They let Bears quarterback Justin Fields escape for a 60-yard run early, then made him pay by sacking him seven times and pummeling him like an angry dog treats its favorite chew toy.

Yes, the Bears are terrible. But the Lions made them look even worse en route to winning for the seventh time in nine games and improving to 8-8. They climbed the standings and took over the seventh and final wild-card spot in the NFC, at least briefly, before the Seattle Seahawks beat the New York Jets late Saturday afternoon.

It all means a playoff spot, the Lions’ first since the 2016 season, could be on the line next week against at Green Bay. Instead of doing what some other cautious and conservative coaches might do — you know, those scaredy cat losers who like to punt — Campbell leaned in to the moment.

Ford Field has become as special place for Campbell, who has made sure he and his coaches recognize the crowd regularly for their vociferous contributions. He thanked them again Sunday and lamented the final home of the season — but offered hope for a much brighter future when he said “we’re going to have a few more home games here down the road in January.”

That means Campbell envisions the Lions playing their first playoff game at Ford Field. It would be the Lions’ first home playoff game since the 1993 season, when they won their last division title and hosted the Packers at the Silverdome.

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“It’s early right now,” he said. “I know this, I always felt like that you want to win a division championship as soon as you’re on the spot, I mean there’s no doubt about that. But you also have a vision of where you think it needs to go. And I know this like we need to be competing for division championship next year. I mean, that’s the goal.”

He’s right. Of course coaches take the job because they think they can win and win big. But not many of them like to talk about it publicly before it happens. They know it can come off as presumptuous and it makes them a bigger target for criticism if they fall short.

The Lions have done such little winning the past 30 years, give or take, that few people have had the guts to say such things. I remember in training camp in 2011, general manager Martin Mayhew said “we’re at a point now where we expect to challenge for our division.” It felt like Moses reading from his two tablets.

But Campbell knows what he has, which is why he isn’t afraid to say what he said. He has a resilient team with a good mix of young players and veterans. He has good coaches and one shining star in offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who probably won’t be around much longer.

The Lions have learned how to win, mostly because they’ve learned lose and how to get better from a loss. After they lost to the Panthers, they practiced in full pads and it paid off. Campbell and his coaches have earned their players’ trust. But even more than that, they’ve taught the players a bigger lesson about consistency being the key to being a good team.

“You know, we’ve had some success here recently,” Decker said. “But it’s going to be a question of can we sustain that not just over maybe an eight-game stretch but over seasons and years?

“And I think that’s what this organization is building this team for, to have sustained success. But ultimately it’s up to us to go out there and do it. Like, we have to show up every single week.”

If the Lions ever achieve that kind of consistency, you can trace it back to Sunday, when Campbell wasn’t afraid of speaking it into existence. From his time in New Orleans and general manager Brad Holmes’ time with Rams, they know what the advantage of home playoff games. From their time in Detroit, they know what an even bigger advantage a home playoff game would be in a city rabid for a winner. It’s what the two men have planned from the start.

“Man, you’re able to get a home game,” Campbell said, “get you a couple of home games and now everything runs through Ford Field, it runs through Detroit, man, you like your odds a little better.

“Now, there again, we’re — this is all — we’re still in this moment right now, we’ve got to go to Green Bay, so I don’t want to get too far ahead. But that was always the vision, man. And if we don’t think like that, then we’ll never get there. I know that.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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