Never has it been easier to see Detroit Lions playing — and winning — in the playoffs

Detroit Free Press

They’re different, these NFL playoffs. They feel different, anyway.

And since perception is reality and the Lions are changing perceptions, well, Sunday’s impending NFC and AFC championship games suddenly don’t feel like faraway entertainment as much as a referendum on:

How would the Lions stack up against Kansas City? Or Cincinnati? Or San Francisco? 

Or Philadelphia?

Wait, we know how they’d match up against the Eagles. We saw that. Up close. In Week 1, when the Lions scored a touchdown with three minutes and change left in the game to make it 38-35 and then … couldn’t … force … a … punt.

Twice, the Lions pushed the Eagles to third down. Once, they pushed them to fourth down. The game was that close.

And when it was over, and the Lions opened the season with a loss, the assumption, by many, was that Philadelphia was nothing more than a solid playoff team — the Eagles were coming off a wild-card loss — and that the Lions’ fourth-quarter touchdowns weren’t much more than window dressing.

Turns out the play from both sides wasn’t a fluke. The Eagles kept rolling with 13 wins in their first 14 games, earned homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and are now a win over the 49ers away from the Super Bowl. We all know how the Lions finished their season.

Yes, hanging with the Eagles at Ford Field in September is not the same as doing so at Lincoln Financial Field in late January. But the Lions would hang again with Philly, at least for a while. Just as they could with Cincy, K.C. or San Francisco.

Which means that for the first time in forever, it’s not ridiculous to imagine the Lions — THE LIONS! — in a conference title game. Knowing that has made watching these playoffs different.

And more fun, albeit still a bit bittersweet.

Still, imagining the Lions playing — and thriving — in the conference championship game is one thing. Actually beating the Eagles or the 49ers, and then the Chiefs or the Bengals in the Super Bowl, is another.

It’s a different level, though not one that’s as far away as you might think.

Consider it this way, if you’ll forgive the strained logic (aka, the transitive properties theory) so often applied in sports: If Team X beats Team Y and Team Z beats Team Y, then Team Z should be able to stay with Team X. At least, so we think.

For example, Kansas City beat Jacksonville in the divisional round by a touchdown, 27-20. It was an actual close game, not one of those one that looks close on the score ticker but in fact wasn’t.

The Lions didn’t play Kansas City this season. But they did play Jacksonville in early December.

The Lions won, 40-14.

Again, this doesn’t mean the Lions would beat the Chiefs, not by the 19 points implied by the difference in the victories, nor even by a single point. It does suggest, however, that the Lions could play with them. And, at this point in the Lions’ rebuild, that’s significant.

That we’re even having this discussion is radical. The Lions won three games a season ago. They began this season 1-6. Team owner Sheila Hamp had to meet with the media midseason to reiterate her belief in Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes.

And now we’re imagining how’d they line up with the 49ers or the Bengals?

The NFL changes like that. Always has. The Jaguars were a mess a year ago — they fired head coach Urban Meyer late at night midseason, just over 400 days ago — then struggled early this season, just like the Lions. But they stayed in games, and then started winning them.

They caught a break — aka, the AFC South — to make the postseason and beat the Chargers in the wild-card round after falling behind by 27. The next thing they know they’re lining up against Patrick Mahomes, and 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence had grown up in a hurry.

So, yeah, it can take forever — or at least seem like it — and then it’s sudden, and here the Lions are, likely favorites to win the NFC North next season, the darlings of the national media and a team that will carry serious expectations eight months from now.

The Lions don’t have Mahomes or Lawrence or Joe Burrow or Jalen Hurts, but they have a good story — like the 49ers do with Brock Purdy — and sometimes stories have a way of creating their own momentum.

They also have talent, maybe more than is realized at the moment: A lot of their talent is young talent, and young talent can change fast, too.

Potential is tantalizing like that. Each week of the playoffs has made the Lions’ potential even more tantalizing.

Hey, the Lions could score on those guys. Jared Goff could make that throw. Kerby Joseph could break up that pass. James Houston could sack that quarterback. So, this is what it’s like to love a team that might just be able to compete … with anyone?

Yeah, it is.

Of course, right now, it’s only a feeling. So let the imagination run wild when the title games kick off. About what the Lions need next. About where they might be going next. A team appearing to be on the come-up is the most endearing period of fandom.

Because you never know. Expectations can get heavy. Bad luck can take over: A tipped pass, a fumble, a missed tackle — how many times have Lions fans seen those? — and one loss turns into three and seasons get away in a flash.

That’s for the future, though. For now, enjoy Sunday’s conference championships — and enjoy more that the Lions wouldn’t look out of place playing in one.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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