Their season may be over before it’s technically over, though looking at tonight’s game against Green Bay like that is the last thing Dan Campbell wants his Lions to do.
If the Seattle Seahawks beat the Los Angeles Rams, the Detroit Lions won’t be playing for a spot in the playoffs. They will, however, be playing for a winning record, and for a 5-1 division record, and for the chance to knock the Packers out of the playoffs.
Also: they’ll be playing for themselves, on the national stage, to see how they’ll handle it, to show where they are, to show where they are going.
“These opportunities don’t always come around,” Campbell said this week. “And I think you go through these things in life, and you don’t always what they’re going to be, but one day you’re going to look back and say, ‘Man, you had these special moments that you were able to be a part of.’ And I try to tell those guys you just don’t know when those are going to come up or what it’s going to mean, but I know this, when you’re done playing, you miss the hell out of it.”
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Most of his players haven’t been in the playoffs, or even played a final-weekend game with the playoffs potentially on the line. And while the Lions’ second-half surge this season suggests they’ll be in meaningful games next year, too, Campbell is right: they may not be.
Or may not be the season after that.
Campbell should know. He got a close-up view of one of the best quarterbacks of his era in Drew Brees. The Saints quarterback will be in the Hall of Fame soon. He played in one Super Bowl.
The quarterback the Lions face tonight is even better than Brees, yet Aaron Rodgers has been there just once, too. You can bet both quarterbacks figured they’d be back on that stage again.
Which is why Campbell said “I try to tell those guys you just don’t know …”
Try is the key word here. Because as much as Campbell preaches what games like tonight mean, they’re best understood after they are over.
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Still, the players on this team understand this is different, especially those that have been here for a few years. The Lions don’t play meaningful games this time of year. And when they have in the past, there was never a thought they could compete with anyone in the NFL.
Well, they can this season, and they know it, and the rest of the league knows it. This is worth something, maybe worth more than that, and this will be true whether the Lions beat Green Bay tonight or not, and whether they get into the playoffs or not.
Yeah, the playoff experience would be helpful. Tonight, though, will be close to that experience, and that is helpful, too.
As Campbell said earlier this week:
“They need to know what this feels like, and they need to know what they’re walking into and at the very least you find out. You find out and you figure out who can, who can’t, who’s young, who’s not, who’s mature … let’s go.”
Let’s go, indeed.
That remains to be seen. Perhaps into the offseason and to different teams for some of the free agents to be.
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But also, perhaps right back into the culture Campbell appears to be building, right back into the work — after some time off, of course — right back into the camaraderie and into the belief that this isn’t the franchise it used to be.
Taylor Decker told everyone this six weeks ago after the Lions lost at the last minute to Buffalo on Thanksgiving. The starting left tackle was adamant and used an expletive we’ll only hint at here.
At the time, the Lions were three games under .500, though they’d won three of four. The Lions won three in a row again before losing to Carolina on Christmas Eve.
They’d crawled to 7-7 before that game, and while they struggled with rising expectation and pressure the week before in New Jersey against the Jets, Campbell figured they’d play more freely against the Panthers.
They didn’t. They learned another lesson. Then took it out on the Bears last Sunday at Ford Field. And now, here they are again.
Decker was right. This team is different. The franchise feels different. They climbed from a 1-6 start to the precipice of something historic. They are learning how to win.
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And even if the Seahawks get upset by the Rams and the Lions lose a playoff chance by losing to Green Bay in the final seconds after, it won’t mean the Lions are going backwards.
The general manager, Brad Holmes, has shown an eye for talent. The coach, Campbell, has shown a talent for player development and for connecting with his players.
They play for him. They play for each other. That’s easy to see in the locker room these days.
It’s also easy to see how much the players can’t wait to take the field tonight and test themselves. Campbell can’t wait for that moment either.
“We climbed back out of the cellar and got ourselves in position to play for one more meaningful game here, before the year ends,” he said. “And that’s a step in the right direction.”
A step that’s led them here, to a night game, to a night game they earned because they are compelling and because they are good and because they are playing for something, including the chance to send one of the NFL’s biggest stars home for the winter.
When was the last time the Lions could say that?
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.