clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Relief at Last—for the Detroit Lions, Their Long-Suffering Fans, and Jared Goff

After winning their first playoff game in more than three decades, and beating their former quarterback to do it, can the Lions finally replace doubt with belief?

Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

The first “Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!” chant at Ford Field started pregame.

It was hours before Goff would lead the Detroit Lions to victory, 24-23, over the Los Angeles Rams and Matthew Stafford in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs—but it was Goff’s first win of the night. As Goff took the field, Lions fans sang their adulation—and as Stafford took the field shortly thereafter, their chants turned to boos.

Stafford was supposed to be the quarterback who would deliver Detroit salvation—but that belief was many, many heartbreaks ago. For 12 seasons Stafford quarterbacked the Detroit Lions, so often missing the playoffs in the final week of the season; or making it only to lose the moment they arrived. Don’t get it twisted: Detroit loved Stafford, and Stafford loved the city back. But never did Stafford give the Lions faithful the opportunity to fill Ford Field to the brim and howl their throats raw in the postseason, as they finally got to do Sunday night.

Goff, the castoff, the hand-me-down, the asterisk in the Stafford trade, did. The shepherd to the promised land was meant to be Stafford, but it was Goff who brought them here and escorted each one of them to the seats they’d been waiting to fill for 32 years. So Detroit’s fans chanted his name when he took the field. Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!

And that wasn’t the last time.

They did it again at the coin toss, when the captains—including Goff and Stafford—met at midfield. The Rams won the toss and gave the Lions the ball, and Goff marched them down the field—10 plays, 75 yards, not a single snap taken on third down. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Sam LaPorta, and Josh Reynolds each got a target and a catch apiece on that opening drive; Goff didn’t miss a throw. It was the easiest a drive could look, until the very next drive—five plays, 75 yards, no third downs, and only one second down. And that drive started with—you guessed it—a rousing “Ja-red Goff!” chant from the crowd.

At the end of the first quarter, Goff was 9-for-9 for 111 yards. The rookie tight end LaPorta contextualized it best: “The city needed this and deserved this after 30 years, … and if there was any extra incentive needed, it was definitely for 16.”

Perhaps it wasn’t that Detroit or Goff, the Lions’ no. 16, needed any extra incentive to win—rather, they had a mutual desperation, a shared need. The Lions needed this worse than anyone else in the NFL. They hadn’t won a playoff game since the playoffs following the 1991 season; their streak of nine consecutive playoff losses was the longest in league history. Inside the franchise and out, there’s been an unalloyed belief that this Lions team was different than all the rest, that this Lions team wouldn’t break their collective hearts again. That dream was tantalizingly close, but not yet secure. It was on the other side of this game, with the last quarterback who gave the fans hope yet who had failed to deliver on the opposite sideline. Lions fans needed to see their past demons exorcised to truly believe.


A new identity for Lions football waited on the other side of a win. So too did a new identity for Goff. The reality that he was a better player, an evolved player, from the one that the Rams cast out; that he could win without Sean McVay’s guiding hand. Goff had become so much more in Detroit than he was billed to be when he left Los Angeles—system quarterback, exchangeable, a player who limited the offense. If only he could prove it, against the coach and the team that deemed him not enough. He just needed to see it happen.

The win cements this new reality. Goff can believe. Detroit can believe.

But it was not as easy as those first two drives promised.

The next “Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!” chant came at the two-minute warning of the first half. The Lions were up 21-17, as the Rams and Stafford had gone blow-for-blow with Goff through the first two quarters. Stafford hit a no-look pass to Davis Allen; took a shot on a third-and-16 conversion to Demarcus Robinson that busted Stafford’s hand open; and zipped a tight-window laser beam to Tutu Atwell for a 38-yard touchdown.

Stafford was brilliant Sunday night. The same stupefying throws and teeth-gritting toughness that had captured Detroit’s belief for so long, that had secured the Rams’ Super Bowl victory in the immediate wake of the trade two years ago, were on display. Stafford was back in Ford Field, doing what he had always done—but this time, to the silence of the crowd, not their cheers.

Yet still those fans cried “Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!” not two plays after Goff flung a backward pass out of a sure sack and set the Lions up for an eventual third-and-15. Stafford was outplaying him, but Stafford could have outplayed anyone in the world that night, and it wouldn’t have mattered at all: Goff was their guy now. Out of the timeout, Goff fired a rocket to St. Brown beyond the sticks: first down.

It was as if the crowd could conjure a great play with those three magic syllables: Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!

The spell only lasted for so long. The Lions punted and went into halftime up four, 21-17. They’d played great on offense, but the defense was suffering. They were on pace to produce the second-worst defensive performance of the entire season.


There were no chants for the defense Sunday night. No “Cam Sut-ton!” or “Der-rick Barnes!” There was just a roar inside Ford Field—an imposing sound on every down and deafening at its peak. On third down after third down, my Apple Watch warned me that I was in a loud environment and would risk ear damage if I stayed any longer.

The Jaws of Life couldn’t have separated me from my seat. I’d never heard a stadium sound like this. Every time Stafford went to the line of scrimmage to check the play or change the protection, the crowd crescendoed, howling their rage that the Rams offense dare try to speak to one another in their presence. The crowd got so loud that Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes admitted to me after the game that the defense had their own communication issues as they adjusted pre-snap. Noise was not just a destructive force in Detroit on Sunday night; it was an indiscriminate one.

Yet Stafford and McVay remained undeterred. The Rams motioned on 91 percent of their snaps, which is the fifth-highest rate of any game in the Next Gen Stats database. The motion had a purpose. As receivers flipped sides, the strong side became the weak side; as the ball was snapped with a Ram at a full sprint, Detroit’s defense had to react live. “It was a challenge all week, practicing against it: trying to time up the turbos,” middle linebacker and defensive captain Alex Anzalone said after the game. “Are the DBs running with it, or are we bumping it out?” Cornerback Cam Sutton put it more broadly: “It changes your rules, changes your leverage. It changes the call, changes your gaps.”

This is an unimaginable headache for a defense to endure. One little error, even just a hesitation, creates a window for the offense. Consider this fourth-and-5 conversion to Cooper Kupp—see how the safeties are unsure who should be running with the motion; how defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn yells after the Rams convert? This is what a defense facing the Rams has to endure.

But that really was the crux for the Lions defense on Sunday night: endurance. They didn’t play a great game; they didn’t stymie Stafford or flummox McVay. But close games between dangerous offenses come down to a key play or two, and the Lions won the key plays. They held the Rams to three field goal attempts on three red zone drives—in every other game that Stafford played this season, the Rams had at least one red zone touchdown.

See, the pre-snap sleight of hand doesn’t just serve to stress the defense; it also forces the defense to tip its cards. A smart quarterback like Stafford can use the Lions’ reaction to the shifts to determine their coverage rules before the ball is even snapped: man coverage or zone? Who will be responsible for whom?

With the Lions’ defensive play call diagnosed, Stafford could jump to the line of scrimmage and change the call, or stay in the same play and pick a particular matchup he liked—but, as safety Ifeatu Melifonwu told me after the game, “There were a couple of times we got them thinking we were in something when we were in something else.”

One such example was the first red zone stop. A carefully designed blitz sent nickel corner Brian Branch screaming through the line unblocked; a batted pass turned third-and-goal into a measly three points.

Another instance, according to Sutton, came on the first Rams third down of the second half, when they lined up for a third-and-11 from their own 38-yard line. Nothing significant happened on this play, because this play never existed. As Stafford scurried to the line to change the call, and as the crowd swelled to greater volume in response, the play clock dwindled. Stafford was forced to take a timeout not four minutes into the second half.

And the crowd cheered and jeered. They’d taken a timeout out of McVay’s pocket—a clock stoppage that could (and would) become invaluable in a close fourth quarter. They’d take another from him on another third down in the fourth quarter, leaving him with just one timeout to manage the end of the game.


As that end of the game neared, those first two perfect offensive drives felt further and further away. Up by four at the end of the third quarter, the Lions went four-and-out—Goff tripped in the pocket and was sacked on third down. Up by just one with 8:10 remaining, the Lions went three-and-out, burning only 52 seconds of clock, after Goff missed Josh Reynolds on third down. The Lions punted the ball back to Stafford with 7:18 remaining, clinging to a one-point lead.

Doubt wriggled its way back in; the inevitable loomed. This was a Lions team that always disappointed, surrounded by a Lions fan base that knew only disappointment. The pain was as slow and as potent as ever, the incremental realization that a 33rd year of mockery was around the corner. Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same.

The Rams drove into field goal range with 4:24 remaining and had a third down at the Lions’ 34. And that’s when a star player did what star players do: Aidan Hutchinson won the Lions the game.

It wasn’t a sexy highlight play—something like a huge sack or tipped pass. Hutchinson, who had a career night generating pressure, drew a hold on Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein that pushed the Rams out of field goal range. Dare a Lions fan indulge a glimmer of hope?

On that third-and-long, the Rams went to their star player, rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua, to do what star players do—win the game. Nacua already had nine catches on nine targets for a whopping 181 yards and a touchdown at that point in the game—the Lions literally had not stopped him all night. Sutton, who had been tasked with guarding Nacua for much of his record-setting game and had been burned by Nacua on his 50-yard touchdown catch, was in coverage. The crowd’s noise was threatening the structural integrity of the building. This was the play.

Incomplete.

“It’s a snap and clear mentality,” Sutton said, describing how to line up against a receiver in the midst of a perfect game and believe you can win the crucial down. “You just never worry about the play before.”

Sutton, who joined the Lions as a free agent this offseason, chose this. He put on the Honolulu blue, and with it, he put his share of 31 years of playoff failure on his back. This play—to finally win a rep against Nacua after being dominated for 56 minutes—was, for Sutton, a microcosm of the playoff drought. The play meant what the game meant: an opportunity for relief, repentance, a changing of the ways.

“You know, when it mattered most, we just had to bunker down,” Sutton said. “Just compete. Compete. And push our chips to the middle of the table. I just love the resiliency of this team; how we stay together. And we just don’t have a quit in us.”


Resiliency is not just a word for Sutton; it’s a word for Goff, too. “Until you’re around [Goff] like I’ve been around him,” head coach Dan Campbell said earlier this week, “I don’t want to say it surprised me, but yet, you really get to understand just how resilient he is and how his ability to bounce back—he can look at a situation and take it for what it is.” Campbell continued: “He never gets too high, he never gets too low. And, I think that’s exactly where you want your quarterback to be. So he’s very resilient.”

The Lions fielded the Rams’ punt, forced by Hutchinson and Sutton, with 4:07 left in the game. The crowd had forced McVay to burn two of his timeouts—with one remaining, and the two-minute warning included, the clock would stop only twice. Two first downs should be enough to win the game.

When the two-minute warning hit, the Lions were facing a second-and-9. For one final time this evening, the Lions fans cried: “Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!”

And Goff, who missed Reynolds the drive before, who was sacked the drive before that, who was tossed to the wayside by the Rams, who was sent to Detroit to lose, didn’t get too low. He hit St. Brown for the dagger and won the Lions’ first playoff game in 32 years.

The first Jared Goff chant started pregame. The last came postgame, in the Lions locker room. Started this time not by Lions fans, but by the Lions themselves.

Ja-red Goff. Ja-red Goff.

This wasn’t the Super Bowl. It was just the wild-card round; the fourth of the six games this weekend. C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love won their first playoff games. There’s a chance we look back at this postseason in a decade and go, “Oh, right—that was the year the Lions won the Goff game. That was cool.”

But even if nothing more comes of this postseason for Detroit, this win was beautiful in and of itself. This game has a siloed and sacred meaning, held apart from whatever comes next. This was the game Goff won for Detroit; the game that Goff won for himself; the game that Detroit won for itself. Men cried in the stands and on the field; they hollered in elevators. This game justified the work of many, rectified the ills of many, deified the heroes of many. This game healed.

The Lions played their first game in Ford Field in 2002. It took 22 long, tough years for that stadium to see its first playoff game. For its second, it will have to wait only one week, until the Lions host either the Buccaneers or the Eagles next Sunday afternoon. The rafters will shake again with the shared voice of thousands who cry: Ja-red Goff, Ja-red Goff.