Lions’ Dan Campbell defends fourth-down decisions, discusses ‘uncharacteristic’ play in second-half collapse

By Kevin Patra, Around the NFL Writer

The Detroit Lions added a new chapter to the franchise’s novel of pain on Sunday: playoff meltdown.

Dan Campbell’s crew dominated out of the gate, bulldozing its way to a 17-point halftime lead against the NFC’s top-seeded San Francisco 49ers. A party in Detroit quickly turned into heartbreak as everything came unglued for the Lions, and the Niners stormed back for a 34-31 victory to advance to Super Bowl LVIII.

“It’s hard when you lose that way. It’s hard,” an emotional Campbell said. “You feel like you get your heart ripped out.”

A series of errors doomed the Lions.

Leading, 24-10, early in the third quarter, Campbell eschewed a 45-yard field goal on fourth-and-2. Jared Goff avoided pressure and had Josh Reynolds open, but the wideout couldn’t corral the pass. Turnover on downs. The Niners have life.

On the ensuing drive, Lions corner Kindle Vildor had a potential interception ricochet off his facemask caught by Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard gain the Niners turned into a touchdown.

On the next Detroit snap, rookie Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled the ball. Four plays later, tie ballgame.

Another Reynolds drop on a third down. A missed downed punt at the 1-yard-line. A second failed fourth down instead of attempting a 48-yard game-tying field goal. Missed tackles. A brutal goal-line run call, burning a much-needed timeout.

Despair in Detroit.

“We feel like we should have won that game, obviously,” Goff said. “I don’t think it was anything that we’ve done all year up to this point. … Not doing what we want on offense in the second half, ultimately lose the game for a variety of reasons. You tip your cap to San Francisco. They played well in the second half.”

Teams leading by 17-plus points at halftime in Conference Championship games were 21-0. The Lions added a one to the loss column. It marked the third-largest comeback in a Conference Championship game in NFL history and the largest for an NFC team, per NFL Research.

“It’s been very uncharacteristic of us,” Campbell said. “We’ve always been able to get our momentum back. It’s hard to say, honestly, right now. I can’t put my finger on that. That’s not like us. We had plays to be made that we just didn’t make. We normally do.”

Detroit built its big halftime lead by bullying the 49ers on offense, gobbling up 148 rushing yards and three ground scores. The Lions’ elite offensive line dominated, pushing the line of scrimmage three to five yards into the Niners’ defense. A maligned defense got off the field and generated an interception with pressure.

Then it all fell apart in a third quarter that felt like the past 30 years of pain for Lions fans wrapped into 15 minutes.

“What are my emotions? It sucks,” Goff said of the loss. “Pretty devastated. There’s a state of shock a little bit. I just again am proud to be a part of this team, and it’s hard to juggle those two emotions of being proud of what we’ve done this year and dealing with the heartache of the loss.”

Much will be made in the coming days of Campbell’s decisions to go for it on fourth down instead of taking the points. But the Lions made it this far with an aggressive coach. He didn’t change his stripes.

“I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell said. “It’s easy hindsight, I get it. I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. It’s hard. It’s hard, because they didn’t, we didn’t come through, wasn’t able to work out. … And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. It’s part of the gig.”

Campbell’s decisions will get the headlines, but he didn’t drop first downs, fumble the ball, or allow the Niners 27 unanswered points. Criticism is fair — the run and timeout at the goal line certainly deserve to be picked apart — but it was a team-wide flop.

The upstart Lions became the toast of the league with an energetic coach, a fun offense, a quarterback shaking off the critics, and a band of young players thriving. They were fresh, entertaining, and worth rooting for. Thirty minutes of poor football doesn’t change those things, but it sure stings.

“Just came up short. I struggle finding the words to totally encapsulate how or why,” Goff said. “I do know I’m proud of this team. Proud of these guys and proud to be a part of it. No quarter, half, play defines any of us. Unfortunately, they were better than us today.”

The 2023 campaign goes down as one in which Detroit dashed much of its misery, earning its first-ever NFC North division title, winning its first playoff game in 32 years, and winning two postseason games for the first time since 1957. For a half of football, it looked like the Lions would finally see the greatest stage in the NFL. Alas, a first Super Bowl appearance remains elusive.

The future is promised to no one. With the yearly offseason changes ahead — including Detroit possibly losing dynamic offensive coordinator Ben Johnson to a head-coaching gig — to be on the doorstep of the Super Bowl and watching it slip through your fingers is gut-wrenching for the Lions and their fans, who have been through the wringer for 60 years.

“I told those guys this may have been our only shot,” Campbell said. “Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware. And it’ll be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was this year. That’s the reality.”

A reality that makes Sunday’s gut punch twice as painful.

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