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The Lions roared to life with Dan Campbell. They also fell with him — but will rise again

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Does losing in the NFC Championship game hurt more or less than never making it in the first place?

If you ask the Detroit Lions, who were within reach of their first Super Bowl appearance before succumbing to the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, it all feels the same.

“You put a lot of work into it all year long, put your body through a lot,” said linebacker Alex Anzalone. “The team will never be the same. We accomplished a lot this year but our ultimate goal is the Super Bowl. We were within reaching distance and nothing’s worse than almost making it. These are the losses you remember forever.”

Or, as tackle Penei Sewell put it, “That sh— don’t matter.”

The NFC Championship Game crowd was nothing like it was a week before in Ford Field.

The atmosphere inside Levi’s Stadium as the Lions faced the 49ers was relatively subdued early, save for the smattering of Honolulu Blue in the stands aptly screaming their heads off at every little inkling of excitement. But for the Faithful, it felt like just another game in the Bay.

The Detroit Lions marched down the field and scored in four plays. That helped quiet the home fans down, too.

But the 49ers have been here before… and so have their fans.

As the night got longer, the Faithful cheers got louder.

They reached peak levels on an Elijah Mitchell touchdown run from three yards out late in the fourth quarter that capped off 27 unanswered points. It was San Francisco’s second touchdown in the second half off downs and sealed the game.

Because you live by the ways of Dan Campbell, and occasionally you can die by them, too.

The Lions went for it on fourth down three times throughout the game, though not when they had all the momentum going their way at the end of the first half. Incidentally, that decision may be the one most people take exception to when looking back on the game. Instead of trying for a touchdown on fourth-and-3 from the 3-yard line, Campbell elected to kick the field goal and take the points. It was out of character for Detroit.

It stuck out like a sore thumb because that character has been so pronounced all season. This Detroit team has a lot of it. This is who they are; aggressive and gritty. Going for it on fourth down, along with a host of other ‘Campbell-isms,’ is what they’re known for. There’s no sense in getting mad at Campbell for going for it with seven and a half minutes left to tie the game up at 27-all. He was trying to take the game back, the only way he knew how.

“I just felt really good about us converting, getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” said Campbell, as he fought back tears on the podium. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do. I wanted to get the upper hand back. It’s easy, hindsight, I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. It’s hard because we didn’t come through and it wasn’t able to work out. I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig, man. But it just didn’t work out.”

Dan Campbell after Lions’ heartbreaking loss: ‘I’ll go to war with those guys any day’

Campbell doesn’t go for ties. Aggressiveness in pivotal points and making teams defend all four downs worked time and time again for Detroit this season. Aggressiveness got them here in the first place and there was no reason to switch up now.

The Lions put a target on their backs in Week 1 of this season, beating the Kansas City Chiefs on banner-raising night. And yet it was the Lions who rose to every occasion throughout the season, never losing back-to-back games, and cruising to a division title, their first in over 30 years and first ever over the NFC North.

It was because of the belief Campbell has in his team and a fan base that finally allowed themselves to believe, too. A loss in the NFC Championship game shouldn’t shake that belief. 

Despite the loss, these are not the same old Lions.

NFC Championship Game highlights: Lions vs. 49ers

“I think Dan and the people upstairs, the players in this locker room, we bought in and it showed all year,” said wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. “We came up short, but I think we have a lot of good players on this team, the right coaches, the right everything to be back here next year. Obviously, it’s going to be tough. It will probably be tougher next year than it was this year but we feel like we’ve got the guys and we’re hungry. We’re going to be ready next year.”

Lions’ RB David Montgomery after loss to 49ers: ‘Dan is the best coach in the league’

Of course, it won’t be the same. No two teams are alike year after year. Heck, St. Brown could lose his offensive coordinator in a matter of hours if Ben Johnson ends up being offered one of the two remaining head coaching opportunities this week, as many expect. He has been linked to the Commanders by several prominent league insiders.

But rookie tight end Sam LaPorta was the team’s leading receiver with nine catches for 97 yards. Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs ran for a touchdown in his fourth straight game. Rookie linebacker Jack Campbell recorded the second-most combined tackles. Rookie safety Brian Branch had a tackle for loss. There is a young core in Detroit that will be here next year, along with a host of others. 

And the Lions will still have Motor City Dan Campbell, wielding his sword of aggression to help Detroit continue to believe in next year.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.



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