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Here comes The Sun: Amon-Ra St. Brown gives Detroit hope

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The Detroit Lions fanbase is a reasonable group. These people don’t expect miracles. They’re not demanding championships and dynasties.

They just want something to believe in.

Consider what Detroit fans have lived through. The last Lions playoff win came in 1991. Detroit’s two modern signature supertars, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, each walked away from football after their age-30 season. Detroit’s never been to a Super Bowl. Overmatched Matt Patricia coached this team for two-and-a-half years; it felt like 10.

With that backdrop in mind, it warmed my heart to hear Ford Field boisterous for three hours Sunday as the Lions secured an upset win. Sure, NFL Films won’t form a documentary off Detroit’s 37-30 victory over Green Bay; the Packers didn’t need the game and several key players were rested proactively.

But Lions fans are excited. Detroit finally has some hope. Head coach Dan Campbell is an inspiring guy, the type who emotionally connects with his team. Remember the takeaway from Shawshank Redemption: Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.

Much of Detroit optimism centers around blistering rookie wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown; call him The Sun God. The USC kid likely goes down as the steal of 2021’s draft, the Lions snagging St. Brown in the fourth round. St. Brown racked up another eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown Sunday, in addition to a 12-yard run.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JANUARY 09: Amon-Ra St. Brown #14 of the Detroit Lions carries the ball after a reception during the second half against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on January 09, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Amon-Ra St. Brown will be a high fantasy football draft pick in 2022 based off an electric finish to his rookie season. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

It was St. Brown’s sixth straight game with double-digit targets, and targets are a sign of wideout dominance. St. Brown’s produced with both Jared Goff and Tim Boyle; talk about threading the needle. St. Brown’s final six games of the season stuffed the box score: 51 catches for 560 yards, another 61 rushing yards, six touchdowns. He was on the short list of league-winning fantasy assets, based on how he crushed in Weeks 15-17.

If you want St. Brown next year, you’ll probably have to mobilize in the third round.

If the Lions can get healthy years from T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift next season, you see the roots of a plus offense. And I don’t worry about Hockenson and Swift getting in Brown’s way; this is a case where a rising tide lifts all boats. And heck, if opponents had an easy way to mark and eliminate Brown, we would have seen it the last six weeks. Nobody’s cracked the code.

Maybe this sounds like rose-colored glasses for a team that won a mere 3.5 games in 2021. But be mindful of how competitive the Lions were; they actually covered the spread in 11 of 17 games, the only losing team that was a net winner at the window. There’s reason for optimism here. Building blocks are in place.

The Lions still have decisions to make. Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn lost the play-calling gig in the middle of the year and he’s not returning. There will be staff turnover. Detroit’s defense ranked 30th in DVOA at the start of Week 18.

But at least the arrow is pointing up. There’s young, ascending talent in Motown. In a city that’s had a grey backdrop for so many years, we can finally see the sun.

Speed Round

• I put some Tyler Lockett and Rob Gronkowski props in play this week, mindful of the incentives they were chasing, but perhaps I didn’t give Russell Wilson and Tom Brady as much of an endorsement as I should have (I should have taken the hero juice on both Lockett and Gronk, but opted for much more conservative tickets). Both of these pairings have several seasons of rapport built up, on and off the field. And Wilson and Brady were able to get their buddies paid without interrupting the flow or objective of the game.

• Even the Bears followed the stat-plateau script. They wanted to push Darnell Mooney past 1,000 yards, and they steered 16 targets his way, en route to a juicy 12-126-0 afternoon. It pays to grind the incentives in the final week.

Case Keenum didn’t play a perfect game by any means — he had one horrible pocket decision that led to a gift touchdown for the Bengals, and he also threw a tipped pass around the goal that cost Cleveland at least three points. And it’s not like Keenum deserves a parade for beating a Cincinnati team that was resting key personnel. Nonetheless, I’ll forever assert that the Browns would have been better letting a healthy Keenum play down the stretch, rather than an obviously-compromised Baker Mayfield.

• The Cardinals added Zach Ertz as a supplemental piece, but he’s a primary guy now. He’s seen 43 targets the last four weeks, en route to 28 catches. He’s not as elusive as he once was, but Ertz has tremendous understanding of leverage and space. Give him credit for acclimating to the Cardinals offense instantly.

Marquise Brown was one of fantasy’s right answers for two months, but he ended the year without a touchdown in his final nine games (including a dropped score Sunday). He probably missed Lamar Jackson more than anyone else in this offense; Brown’s last game over 55 yards came in Week 9. If the market price is reasonable, I’m likely to give him another shot next year. Still, sometimes it makes me dizzy to think that Brown and N’Keal Harry both went in front of Deebo Samuel (and several other star receivers) in the 2019 NFL Draft.

• It doesn't matter how ragged the hand looks at times, Mike Tomlin always emerges with a winning record. I have no pro or con affiliation with the Steelers, but that man has my eternal respect. He might be the second best coach in the NFL today.

Davis Mills posted 301 yards, three touchdowns, and a juicy 9.1 YPA against an engaged Titans defense. He didn’t turn the ball over and he took just two sacks. Mills has good size for a quarterback and he’s still something of an unknown, starting just 13 games at Stanford. He’s at least a 10-yard support quarterback for someone, and maybe a competent starter.

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