ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Lions had their best season in generations.
Players, coaches and at least some fans are not ready to celebrate at the moment.
The Lions let an opportunity slip to play in the Super Bowl for the first time, becoming the first team to lose a 17-point halftime lead in a conference championship game with their 34-31 loss at San Francisco.
“We know we accomplished a lot this year, but our ultimate goal was the Super Bowl and we were within reaching distance and there's nothing worse than almost making it,” Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone said Sunday night. “These are the losses that you’ll remember forever.”
Even though nothing can erase the pain for the Lions, there's no doubt they were the source of joy for millions in the Motor City and throughout the state of Michigan in a season that surpassed unusually high expectations. And their future seems promising.
“I think think what we built was hope,” running back David Montgomery said.
Hopes were high for Detroit last summer as the favorite to win the NFC North, and the team lived up to the hype by ending a three-decade stretch without a division title and tying a franchise record with 12 regular-season wins.
The Lions had two home playoff games for the first time, earned two postseason victories for the first time since winning the 1957 NFL championship and reached the conference title game for the first time in 32 years and second time in franchise history.
Once there, they led San Francisco 24-7 early in the third quarter before blowing it.
“That feeling that we all had walking off of that field, I don’t think any one of us want to feel that again,” receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “I think the feeling that we have is enough to motivate us for next year.
“We had a good year as a whole, but it is all for nothing if you don’t win the whole thing.”
Even though the franchise fell short, owner Sheila Ford Hamp got it right when she hired general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell three years ago after decades of poor leadership in the front office and on the sideline.
Holmes has hit much more than he's missed in three drafts, giving the franchise plenty of building blocks on both sides of the ball.
Campbell's gambles have led to a league-high 62 conversions on fourth down in his three seasons and 22 wins in his last 30 games, but his characteristically risky moves didn't go his his way against the Niners.
Detroit had a chance to restore its 17-point lead midway through the third quarter, but Campbell chose to for it on fourth-and-2 from the 28 instead of having having Michael Badgley kick a field goal. Josh Reynolds dropped a slightly errant throw from Jared Goff, making the move backfire.
Reynolds also dropped a pass on third down later in the quarter.
“I definitely didn't help,” he said Monday as he and his teammates cleared out their lockers.
Down three points midway through the fourth quarter, Campbell went for it again on fourth-and-3 from the 30 instead of attempting a field goal, and Goff threw incomplete under pressure.
“You want to make the most of every opportunity and we had an opportunity, and we just couldn’t close it out,” Goff said. "It stings.”
Campbell stood by his choices, including running the ball on the team's final drive and being forced to use the first of three timeouts.
“I gambled and lost,” he said softly at his season-ending news conference about 10 hours after the team arrived back in Detroit.
The Lions start their offseason with $60-plus million in salary cap space, ranking No. 7 in the league, and will have some decisions to make.
Goff has one year left on his contract, possibly making him a candidate for an extension.
Free agents include guards Jonah Jackson, who had a second straight injury-shortened season, and Graham Glasgow along with defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who was limited to three games due to injuries.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn are among the candidates to be Washington's coach, potentially leaving Campbell with an important role to fill on his staff for next season.
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