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NFL

The Lions Are The Only Choice Left

1:46 PM EST on January 22, 2024

Josh Reynolds jumps into the stands after a touchdown catch
Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The world simply wasn't ready for a Lions-Bills Super Bowl. Lake Erie, the Bermuda Triangle of football, had a shot this playoffs at bringing two of its burnout daughters to the big stage for an unprecedented clash of perennial losers. Even after the Browns got rocked, that dream was alive. But on Sunday night, the smallest of the Great Lakes had a big impact, summoning chilly winds in Buffalo that thwarted Bills kicker Tyler Bass as he went for a tie on what would be team's final possession of the season.

Again, I'm not sure we were prepared for the possibility a made kick and a subsequent Bills win would have sharpened. Two fanbases that have become symbolic of different shards of misery—the debilitating heartbreak of oh-so-close and the numb dysfunction of endless failure—each had real chances to overthrow the well-established order of the football cosmos. Had they been forced to direct their pent-up frustration against the other, the region might have never recovered.

But now only the Lions are left standing, and if there's any decency left in otherwise uncommitted NFL fans, they're your team now, too, because the Lions are the only franchise allowed to play the role of the lovable underdog delivering uppercuts to the league's Haves. After back-to-back wins against the NFC's two most recent Super Bowl winners, every potential enemy from here out remains one of the league's elite franchises. They may hold their heads high, but that only makes their kneecaps more vulnerable.

This feel self-evident to me, but I will spell it out if you need me to. The Ravens already won a Super Bowl with their current coach, and their other title win came after they stole a team from Cleveland and foisted Ray Lewis upon the world. They spent the offseason trying to ditch Lamar Jackson at a rest stop, and their most fawned-over player is a kicker. Do not cheer them. The Chiefs are an insurance commercial moonlighting as a football team, and winners of 50 percent of the last four Big Games. They taunt the rest of us with the league's most overexposed quarterback, coach, tight end, and fan. I hope your premiums double if you root for them.

Finally, and most immediately, there is the matter of the 49ers. Some fans of this team had the gall to whine when they hit a rough patch in the 2000s, but this franchise is the Dallas Cowboys with a lava lamp: same anodyne monstro-stadium, same undead nostalgia, same peeved expectation of nationwide respect. Oooooh, one of your guys made "The Catch"? Amon-Ra St. Brown made eight of them on Sunday. There might well be some good 49ers fans out west, but none of them will be watching live next weekend; everyone who can afford to make the trip down to whatever suburb they fled to has made $100 million from an app called dtrgnt that does surge pricing for laundromats. Learn how to build a car, idiots!

Detroit is not special, to be clear. Lions fans are not inherently nobler for our suffering. Every one of us from the season-ticket holders to the ass-eaters at the tailgates, in theory, has the same capacity for snobbery and barbarity as any other weirdo that turns their sports fandom into an identity. Look at the once-cute stories of the Warriors and Red Sox to see how a once-in-a-lifetime turnaround can devolve into something hate-worthy. Winning begets greed and smug self-satisfaction. No franchise is too pure to be immune from those sins.

But Lions fans have been so well-protected from the spoils of victory that we're ripe for a turn at the top. For decades, we've been shut away from the spotlight, locked in the basement to amuse ourselves while the rest of the league holds its parties upstairs. We'd plot out imagined futures for our doomed draft picks and cuss out an endless succession of doomed coaches, but we'd only really show our faces to the rest of the world on Thanksgiving, and the world would respond, "Damn, you live like this?" and then go on ignoring us while we went back to swapping Bobby Layne stories over increasingly potent drinks.

This year, however, the Lions' exhilarating home playoff wins have given us a reason to keep wearing our jerseys through the worst of winter, and to proudly shout what we used to cynically mutter: "These frickin' Lions. They're unbelievable." It's still so new that the sincerity remains impossible to deny. There used to be something seriously broken in everyone who stuck with this franchise. There's something broken in you if you're not rooting for them now.

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