32 years of frustration for Lions fans ended with one deafening celebration in Detroit

DETROIT — The roar was primal. It was visceral. It was generational. It felt like it couldn’t get louder, and then it did. It felt like it couldn’t last, and then it never waned. It rattled the beams of Ford Field and poured out of television sets across the country.

It was loud, of course. More than 66,000 screaming Detroit Lions fans inside a roofed stadium downtown. That doesn’t count the millions more in crowded bars or living room watch parties or even alone, pacing in nervous panic, at least until head coach Dan Campbell called for victory formation, the scoreboard secure at Lions 24, Rams 23.

But this was about more than traditional crowd noise — whether designed to distract or celebrate — because this was more than just an NFL wild-card game. It was the roar that some waited 32 seasons to deliver while surely many others had lost hope that it would ever arrive.

It came from the depths of so many lost seasons and so many lost chances; lost chances at what they were now, at last, experiencing. So often across the decades, it didn’t even feel like Detroit had an NFL team, at least not in anything but a supporting role.

They hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season, hadn't hosted since 1993. Prior to that, no postseason victories since 1957. Instead, they had winless campaigns and Millen Man Marches and ridiculous moments, such as the time a player got cut and stole the luggage of his replacement or the time an assistant coach was arrested for being drunk and naked in the Wendy’s drive-through.

That was the Lions, a punchless recurring punch line, a constant reminder of failure in a city that desperately wants to be seen for what it is becoming, not what it once was.

All the while, Lions supporters had to watch other fans in other communities, even expansion franchises and bandwagon supporters, enjoy the thrill of professional football.

These magical January nights, these playoff runs, have a way of galvanizing communities. They transcend city and suburb, boss and employee. They bridge races and religions and political persuasions.

Detroit Lions fans cheer as the team defeats the Los Angeles Ramsduring the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

They cause old friends to text and new ones to be made. They connect those who moved away with a sense of home. They bring parents and kids, no matter the age, in front of the same screen.

In Detroit, they almost never had that. They seemingly talked only about next year’s draft.

So on Sunday, from the pregame “Jared Goff” chants to the third-down explosions to that final frenzy that they almost couldn’t believe, these fans just seemed to get louder and louder, deafening and then more deafening after that.

“Wild,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said.

“Shaking,” center Frank Ragnow said.

“The people here," Goff said, "are special, man.”

Officially, all the Lions did was advance to the NFC divisional round. They'll host either Philadelphia or Tampa Bay next Sunday. In other places, this would be just a start — and inside a fairly business-like Lions locker room, that was the sentiment as well.

“We’re ready to keep it rolling,” safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson said.

Up in the stands, though, out in the streets, it was something different. Maybe one day they’ll be so content. Not yet, though. This, this here was a destination, a dream no longer deferred.

Oh, they want more, and they might be even louder next week, but when Goff (the Rams' cast-off) hit Amon-Ra St. Brown (the fourth-round draft pick) for 11 yards and a game-clinching first down, there were tears in the stands.

Hugs, too. Dancing. Even after the clock ran out and the minutes ticked by late on a Sunday night, almost no one left. Traffic be damned, they'd waited half a lifetime to get to stay and soak it in.

Part of this was about being heard, too. It was an impossible to ignore call that the Lions are here, Detroit is here.

Just this week, they had to listen to the national media focus not on their team and their 12-win season and their Super Bowl potential and their up-and-coming stars. Instead, it was about the other quarterback, former Lion Matthew Stafford who had asked for, and been granted, a trade to L.A. so he could win a Super Bowl.

Could Stafford come back and beat Detroit? Could Stafford ruin the Lions' season? Could Stafford, Stafford, Stafford …

“I just kept going back to what this game was about,” Goff said of hearing it all week. “It was about us. It was not about them … It was about the 53 in this locker room, our coaches and this organization getting a playoff win for the home crowd.”

Goff completed 22 of 27 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown Sunday. His offense scored a touchdown on its first three drives, setting the Rams on their heels. Stafford was Stafford, a brilliant competitor, but when he needed to make plays, the Lions' defense wouldn’t allow it. L.A. scored just six second-half points.

“All three phases,” Campbell was saying after. “That’s how you win playoff games.”

That’s how you win playoff games. In Detroit. Who knew? A balanced offense. A red-zone-tough defense. A 54-yard field goal.

A raucous, roaring crowd that wouldn’t let up, couldn’t let up, unleashing decades of pent-up emotion and frustration and elation, all at once.

It was loud. Just as it should have been.