If NFL is a copycat league, Detroit Lions are copying Super Bowl contenders in a vital way

Detroit Free Press

It’s a copycat league, the NFL. So goes the saying, and the saying is going around a lot at the moment, as it always does this time of the year, when the schedule has winnowed the field to two, and the runup to the Super Bowl doesn’t quite ramp up for another week.

So, yeah, it’s a copycat league, as in: How do the Detroit Lions copy the Super Bowl finalists? Or even the semifinalists?

That’s the question, right? To look at who is succeeding and why and try to do something similar. Except there is no copying what Kansas City is doing — reaching five AFC title games and three Super Bowls in the last five seasons — because there is no other Patrick Mahomes. Just as there wasn’t another Tom Brady.

Ask Bill Belichick, who hasn’t sniffed a Super Bowl since Brady left for Tampa three years ago. So, yeah, that copycat plan is out.

It probably is for Cincinnati, too, since Joe Burrows looks like 1 of 1 as well, just one who isn’t quite as good as Mahomes. Still, he’s good enough that building a roster around the hope that a younger version of him awaits is probably not a sound strategy.

Unless you fall into the next great quarterback, and even then, it’s not always enough. Talk to Buffalo. That franchise has a superstar quarterback leading its huddle, but as good as Josh Allen is … it’s not enough.

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No single player is enough. Except for maybe Mahomes, who played on a bum ankle, who lost three of his starting wideouts, whose best target, Travis Kelce, was hobbled by a sore back, and still made enough plays to get the Chiefs past the Bengals on Sunday.

But then that’s not fair to reality, either. As great as Mahomes is, the Chiefs don’t win without Chris Jones, a 6-foot-6-inch, 313-pound defensive … tackle? End? Lineman?

What we can say for certain is that Jones blew up the Bengals pocket all game long. And when Burrows got the ball with the game tied and a couple minutes to go, he couldn’t find anywhere to go, especially on third down, when Jones lined up on the left edge, flicked aside Bengals right tackle Hakeem Adeniji and met Burrows in the backfield.

It was Jones’ second sack and the Chiefs’ fourth overall. Add in the 10 quarterback hits and countless hurries that forced a handful of dirtballs where Burrows had to throw at his teammate’s feet and well, you get the idea:

Burrows didn’t have time. Mahomes did.

Give Burrows time and pressure Mahomes and the game is different. The score is different. The outcome is different.

Even at that level of quarterbacking, it’s still about who gets more time, who gets more time to get comfortable, who finds a rhythm. Now, it’s true that the great ones make the throws when they get the chance in the games when there aren’t many chances.

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Mahomes did that. And while he had more time, he didn’t have more open targets, particularly in the second half. When he did, he made the throws. Or he made enough of them.

Again, he is singularly gifted, and none of the other 31 teams can hope to find another one. Then again, they don’t need to.

The Bengals may have lost Sunday, but they beat the Chiefs a year ago in Arrowhead Stadium and almost beat them again. Because they have Burrows, yes, but also because they have a good defense and great offensive playmakers.

What they don’t have is a great offensive line. It was better this season than last and might have been better Sunday if not for three injured starters. Still, it’s not the Chiefs’ line, which is more than solid, and it’s certainly not the Eagles offensive line, which is arguably the best in the NFL.

In fact, the Eagles might be better at every position group than the Chiefs except for quarterback and tight end. In this way, the Super Bowl represents a nice little petri dish:

Is it the quarterback?

Or the roster around him?

Obviously, that’s an oversimplification. The quarterback is critical. San Francisco had no chance once Brock Purdy went out with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow, and the 49ers have as complete a roster as there is in football.

The only team more complete?

The Eagles.

Which brings us back to the Lions, because it’s always about the Lions, and it always should be about the Lions, because while Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are a nice story, and Mahomes is the story – or at least the player – neither team will be the story the Lions would be if they were to play in a Super Bowl.

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But that’s another story, too. For now, the Lions story is related to next week’s Super Bowl story in the way a graduate student is related to a tenured professor: How do I get to where they are?

Well, as established, it’s not by cloning Mahomes. Or Burrows. Or even Hurts. San Francisco showed that Brock Purdy, before he was hurt, was good enough to play for a spot in the Super Bowl when the roster is right.

So, yeah, talent wins. And talent in the right spot wins more.

Kansas City may have the best quarterback, but against Cincinnati, the Chiefs had the better offensive and defensive lines. And though Purdy got hurt and we’ll never know what might have happened otherwise, the Eagles still looked better at the point of attack. That was partly why Purdy got hurt.

All of which is to say: the Lions are fundamentally copying the last two teams standing, which is hardly a revelation. For this game, at this level, is almost always about the same thing:

Who has more time?

And who doesn’t.

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

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