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What Happens Next?

Jared Goff walks down the field
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

After beating the Rams and finally bringing a playoff win to Detroit two weeks ago, Lions quarterback Jared Goff acknowledged the home crowd that chanted his name and said how cool and unprecedented it was for him to hear the love. When the Lions stayed alive with a win over Tampa, the "Ja-red Goff" mantra became more ubiquitous. Red Wings, Pistons, Western Michigan, regular Michigan, minor league hockey: Wherever sports fans gathered, they sung Goff's praises. Years ago, a Lions-flavored chant heard somewhere besides a Lions game meant people really wanted the GM fired, but in these spaces, it welcomed everyone in the state to a party we'd been planning since 1991.

As the NFC title game hit halftime, though I kept my emotions in check, I did think about what it would mean to have two more weeks of this—not just Lions excitement pulsing through my hockey broadcasts, but a rare feeling of an overtly divided Michigan as a unified front, however superficial. I probably would have gone home if the Lions had won, to make sure I experienced the state in a frenzy that I had rarely let myself imagine. But over the next 30 minutes, as the Niners asserted their superiority and Detroit's small mistakes proved to have big consequences, the Lions gave away their opportunity. We can still celebrate this team and what it's accomplished; the Goff chants may not be gone forever. But now "the next game" means preseason, and the revised goal is way off in the distance. For the first time ever, I'll be viewing the Super Bowl with a genuine feeling of regret.

I've spent years watching teams in all sports drop out of the playoffs and then writing about it, but this is a situation that leaves me without context. There's a formula for evaluating a season after it ends: What'd they do, where'd they fall short, how are they feeling, and what comes next? But I get stopped after the first two. What'd they do? Detroit won 12 games, then two more, to give fans a joy that plenty had never known. Where'd they fall short? They minimized their weaknesses as much as possible in a road game where they were seven-point underdogs, but got inched out on both talent and execution while falling victim to straight-up screwiness.

OK. How are they feeling? On the one hand, it is the right of any fan to feel frustrated and upset by a blown 17-point lead at the most critical time of the season. On the other hand, it's the Lions. After years of getting mad at them for blowing games that didn't really matter, it's almost a blessing to get upset about something this incredibly consequential. But I also feel stung by the knowledge of how hard it was to get here—how hard it will be, just to get back to this, in any other year. I no longer hold a fear that the team will never ever be good, thank god, but what won't go away anytime soon is the worry that, like too many other teams, "being good" won't be enough. There's a possibility that this is the "death and rebirth" part of the hero's journey. And then there's a possibility that we're now the Buffalo Bills. I think I speak for more than just myself when I say I'm caught between gratitude for these Lions and disappointment—this lingering high and the melancholy reality.

What comes next? Secondary help, ideally an insurance plan at quarterback. But that's not quite the point. There's a joke I heard when I was young that I like to retell to other football fans. The short version: Guy walks into a barber shop with his dog on Sunday afternoon. Lions kick a field goal on TV. Dog goes wild with excitement. Barber asks what the dog does if they score a touchdown. Guy says, "I don't know. He's only a year old."

My lack of relevant experience has me feeling like the dog right now. I've crumbled in despair at countless regular-season setbacks. I've cried at the small-time triumph of just hosting a playoff game. I've ridden the full emotional spectrum with a franchise that has only played a bit part in modern NFL history. So what happens to her after they lose the NFC Championship Game? I don't know, she's only 28. I guess we'll see.

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