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Detroit rejoices as Lions win their second playoffs game in decades

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The city of Detroit is buzzing over something that has not happened since the Eisenhower administration. The city's beloved and often belittled football team, the Detroit Lions, has won two playoff games in a season. It was an exciting moment as the NBC announcers broadcast the play that sent Detroit to a championship matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Mayfield in the middle. It's intercepted. It's Derrick Barnes. It's off to San Francisco for the Lions.

SUMMERS: And now the Lions are one win away from a spot in the Super Bowl. Quinn Klinefelter from member station WDET has been following the team's progress. Hi, Quinn.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Hello.

SUMMERS: Quinn, I got to tell you, I watched that game. That was an incredible win for the Lions. And, I mean, it has been more than three decades since the Lions were in an NFC Championship Game. What is it like in Detroit right now?

KLINEFELTER: It is electric, a word usually reserved for the kind of vehicles Detroit automakers are working on. The Lions had always captured the hearts of fans and often broke them after so many struggling seasons. It's been since 1957 that the team won two playoff games and the NFL Championship. That was about a decade before the league even created the Super Bowl. There were real tears shed in the stands that the team's Ford Field after these playoff victories and some tears among players as well as the team had struggled and struggled to be competitive.

SUMMERS: I mean, Quinn, there seems to have been big change over the last few years for the Lions, but also for the city of Detroit, right?

KLINEFELTER: Yeah. The city of Detroit itself had become a punchline for some comedians and actually declared bankruptcy a decade ago. It's been undergoing a rebirth over the past 10 years, with new investment and a newfound excitement, at least in the city's downtown. But up until the last few years, very few football fans really expected the Lions to be where they are now. Probably no one knows as tough times - that Detroit suffered through more than a veteran offensive tackle named Taylor Decker. He's always been known as a good player on a bad team. And even though we're talking about professional athletes who earn millions of dollars, in the Lions' locker room, Decker said this latest playoff victory makes the rough times worthwhile for him, the team and the fans who seem to bleed Detroit's signature Honolulu blue colors.

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TAYLOR DECKER: I think my experience is like a little slice of the pie of what they've gone through. And you see the pictures last week of, you know, somebody's grandpa dyed his hair blue. There's people who are 7 years old, and there's people who are 77 years old who are just over the moon. They're just happy.

SUMMERS: The team had set a record for losing in the past, so what did it take to build a winning mindset?

KLINEFELTER: Well, the ownership changed the team's regime about three years ago, brought in a new general manager and a colorful coach who had once been a Lions player, Dan Campbell. He was on that Lions squad in 2008 that set a record no NFL team wants - the first to lose every game of a 16-game season. But Campbell set a different tone at his opening news conference, vowing to build a Lions roster he said would reflect the tough nature of the city. Campbell famously said he wanted a team that, when it was knocked down, would rise up and bite a kneecap on the way until the team was standing and had chewed up its opponent.

And Detroit built its roster with those kinds of players in mind, tough and gritty. In fact, they sell hats now with the word grit emblazoned on the front. They traded away their star quarterback who did not want to go through yet another rebuilding of the roster, then drafted and signed players who could provide a tough running game interspersed with pinpoint passing attacks. The result is Detroit now has one of the top offenses in the NFL. Coach Campbell said they needed that passing attack yesterday when the formidable Tampa Bay defense they played stonewalled the Lions' runners.

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DAN CAMPBELL: It was like swinging a sledgehammer against a steel door. I mean, we were just - over and over and over. And so we knew we needed to loosen them up before we started to run it and we did that.

SUMMERS: All right, Quinn, the Lions are one game away from the Super Bowl. What do you think? What are their chances?

KLINEFELTER: Well, it will be tough. Detroit played its last two playoff games at home in front of a crowd screaming with a pent-up passion born of decades of football frustration. Now the Lions are traveling to San Francisco to take on the 49ers, another team with one of the most stout defenses in the league and an ability to come from behind at the very end of a game, as the 49ers just did last weekend against the Green Bay Packers.

SUMMERS: OK.

KLINEFELTER: But Detroit is only one game away from that Super Bowl showcase. And the team's bandwagon is starting to fill up pretty fast with fans from across the country as well as across the Motor City.

SUMMERS: We will be watching. Quinn Klinefelter from member station WDET. Thank you.

KLINEFELTER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 23, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline and text said the Detroit Lions won their first playoff game in three decades on Sunday. Sunday's game was actually their second playoffs win.
Quinn Klinefelter