The Detroit Lions made an NFC championship game once. It was the 1991 season. Barry Sanders was in just his third season. The Lions lost that title game 41-10 to a really good Washington team.
Then the Lions were the only NFL team stuck on one conference championship game appearance. The Houston Texans are the only team to never make it to the NFL's final four, and they've been around only since 2002. The Lions have been in Detroit since 1934.
But this postseason, the Lions are rewriting a sad history. They had one playoff win in the Super Bowl era before this postseason started, and they've doubled that in an eight-day stretch. The Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 on Sunday and are heading to the NFC championship game for the second time in franchise history.
The Lions took a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter but then had to hang on in the final two minutes. Linebacker Derrick Barnes' interception with 1:33 left sealed the win. Detroit will play at the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.
The Lions got a tough challenge from the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay looked like it might even pull off the upset. But this is a resilient Detroit team. It doesn't carry the weight of all those Lions teams that didn't even make the playoffs, much less win any playoff games. This Lions team is looking to change everything we think about the franchise.
Buccaneers look good in first half
The Buccaneers should have led at halftime.
They had a pass go off Mike Evans' hands that was intercepted. Jared Goff threw a pass into the end zone that should have been an easy interception for Buccaneers cornerback Jamel Dean, but Dean dropped it after it hit him in the hands. The Buccaneers missed a field goal by Chase McLaughlin, who hit 93.5% of his field-goal attempts during the season.
Despite all of that, the Buccaneers had the game tied at the half. A long pass to Evans got the Buccaneers down to the 2-yard line in the final seconds of the half, and Cade Otton caught a touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
That tied the game 10-10. The Buccaneers had outgained Detroit 233-134 in the first half. Baker Mayfield had 181 yards, 97 of which went to Evans. They went into the half with a lot of momentum and confidence.
The Buccaneers won the NFC South and a playoff game. Mayfield had a season that revived his career. Tampa Bay had some strong showings and was a tough out for the Lions. But the Lions were the superior team and took the game over in the fourth quarter.
Lions take 4th-quarter lead
The Lions scored first in the second half, but the Buccaneers responded. One play after officials missed that Mayfield should've been ruled down for a sack — and the Lions didn't challenge — Mayfield hit Rachaad White on a perfectly timed screen pass, and White scored a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game.
The game turned on an electric run by rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs. In a tie game, Gibbs got through the line and then made a move on Buccaneers All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. that left Winfield flailing behind. The Lions got some criticism for drafting Gibbs 12th overall in last year's draft, but that play was exactly why Detroit picked him.
Amon-Ra St. Brown followed that with a big drive. He got a huge first down on third-and-15 to keep a drive alive. After another big play on a catch by Gibbs, St. Brown caught a touchdown in the end zone for a 9-yard score. That put the Lions ahead 31-17 with 6:22 left.
The Buccaneers weren't finished. They scored with 4:37 left but didn't get the 2-point conversion. Tampa Bay got the stop it needed to get the ball back. Jared Goff threw incomplete with 2:06 left, and Detroit punted.
There was plenty of reason for all of Detroit to be nervous. But with 1:33 left, Barnes picked off a Mayfield pass over the middle, and the game was over. For the second straight Sunday in Detroit, the celebration could begin.
The Lions are going to the NFC championship game. The 49ers will be favored. But it's not like this Lions team is too concerned with history or the odds against them.