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Dan Campbell and his kneecap-biting Lions are on the brink of a Super Bowl trip, and no one is laughing now

DETROIT — Three years to the day since Dan Campbell stood behind a lectern talking about how his Detroit team would be “biting kneecaps,” Lions fans stood in the corner of Ford Field and responded with their own message.

“Super Bowl. Super Bowl.”

The Lions are one win away from what long seemed like an impossible dream around here, except not ever to Campbell. Things such as this — playoff runs, deafening cheers and 31-23 victories over Tampa Bay to send the team to face San Francisco in the NFC championship game — were the expected result of the work, culture and preparation that he promised to install.

It wouldn’t be easy. Campbell knew that. He was inheriting a last-place team with a tragic history that had just traded away its best player, Matthew Stafford. Easy jobs don’t come to guys such as Dan Campbell, though.

At 6-foot-5, with a goatee, a gravel voice and physique that speaks to his NFL tight end past, he cuts an imposing physical presence. But size and strength sometimes trick people into underestimating intelligence and creativity. And Campbell had both. He might look like a jock, but he’s the furthest thing from dumb.

Campbell’s news conference that day went viral, and plenty were laughing, either with him or at him or just wondering how it might all play out. He shrugs at it now.

“I envisioned we would have a chance to compete with the big boys, and that’s where we are at,” he said.

Besides, none of what he said was really intended for the media or even the fans. He was setting the tone with the 53 who would eventually fill the locker room.

His metaphors are occasionally tortured, but his point is always crystal clear. Campbell was different. Detroit was going to be different, too.

“That’s my guy,” Penei Sewell, the franchise left tackle, recalled thinking when he first met Campbell. “That’s my type of guy.”

“Dan’s the greatest leader I’ve ever been around,” quarterback Jared Goff said.

Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes didn’t install a mindset through just slogans. They lived it. They showed it. They actively built around the returning guys who already displayed it — the Frank Ragnows, the Taylor Deckers. Then they brought in more like them, no matter the critics.

On Sunday, there was Goff, the cast-off from the Los Angeles Rams, throwing for 287 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Before the game, he was serenaded by fans: “Jared Goff. Jared Goff.” Afterward, for a second consecutive week, he could barely think amid the victory formation din.

“Really a cool thing for me,” he said.

There was Jahmyr Gibbs, the rookie running back the Lions were ripped for drafting 12th overall, supposedly too high for the position, sprinting for a game-changing, 31-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run.

There was Sam LaPorta, another rookie whom draft experts panned for being selected 34th overall, hauling in nine critical catches. There was Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round steal, snagging eight for 77 yards and a score.

And there was that veteran offensive line, a mean, fast and ferocious group the country is just getting to know.

After the game, Ragnow, a six-year veteran, was selected to a national television interview, and Goff had to instruct him to take off his helmet for it. When the big center showed up in the interview room, he spotted the promotional Gatorade bottle next to the microphone and asked if he were allowed to drink it.

“First time here,” he said with a laugh.

Yeah, Campbell is a tough dude, and his players are, too. But the Lions didn’t just get here by being tough. They got here by outfoxing the league, seeing brilliance where others looked for blemishes, believing in their evaluations no matter the blowback and trusting that a new attitude can elevate those beaten down by losing.

They built a staff almost exclusively made up of former players, turning theirs into one of the most confident teams in the league.

They won Sunday with an inside-out game plan, using the pass to set up the run because Campbell said an early-season matchup against the Bucs felt too much “like swinging a sledge hammer against a steel door.”

“We knew we needed to loosen it up,” he said. “And we did that.”

Then the defense held strong when it was needed. That included two interceptions of Baker Mayfield. The final was a game-clincher by linebacker Derrick Barnes, another fourth-round pick who executed coverage and jumped the route just as, he said, it was practiced all week.

After that, the crowd noise nearly blew the roof off the place.

“Just electric,” Barnes said with a smile. “Let’s keep this train going, man.”

There is nothing to dislike about this crew — second-chance guys and criticized pickups and anonymous battlers.

“We wanted something the city can be proud of,” Campbell said of constructing the team. “You can look at those guys and say, ‘I can back that guy. I can back that team.’ Kind of salty. They don’t quit. They play hard.”

Yeah, they are the new kids on the playoff block, and you won't see them in national commercials, but they’ll arrive in San Francisco without hesitation, ready to bring their brand of smoke for whatever stands in the way.

“I think experience is a little overrated,” Sewell said. “I think it’s about preparation.”

Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes (55) receives congratulations from teammates after he makes an interception in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Detroit linebacker Derrick Barnes (55) receives congratulations from teammates after his fourth-quarter interception of Baker Mayfield sealed the Lions' playoff victory. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Detroit will be prepared next weekend. Campbell’s teams are always prepared. He’s the unlikely face of an über-aggressive, cutting-edge concept, but it’s all there. No fear of going for it on fourth down. No hesitation in calling daring plays. No second-guesses. All gas. All grit.

That’s what he was talking about three years ago. A new era for the Lions.

“To each his own,” Campbell said of the critics of his old viral video. “We’re going to the NFC championship game with that group of guys. They love football. They play football. That’s what they respect. They respect their teammates and not anything else.

“When you are able to care more about the person next to you more than yourself," the coach continued, "you are capable of doing some pretty special things.”

Even, perhaps, going to the Super Bowl.