‘This May Be Our Only Shot’ – History Suggests Dan Campbell’s Words Could Be Prophetic for Lions

The Lions blew one of the biggest leads in Conference Championship Game history, and teams that have suffered a similar fate have struggled to bounce back.

Minutes after the Detroit Lions lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, head coach Dan Campbell said something every coach knows but few are willing to articulate — they may have blown their best chance.

Winning is difficult in the NFL, and climbing within one win of the Super Bowl is especially hard. It doesn’t matter how young or talented the team is; things change the following year, and the year after that, and the year after.

Teams That Blow Big Postseason Leads Struggle To Rebound

Nothing is certain, no matter how strong the core of the team might be.

That’s exactly what Campbell was referencing when he talked about it at his postgame news conference.

“I told those guys, ‘This may have been our only shot,’” he said. “Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. It’ll be twice as hard to get back to this point.”

Let’s look at each conference championship game since 2000 and what became of the losing teams.

Only 17 of 45 teams (37.8%) made it back to their conference championship game in either of the next two seasons, with the 2022 Cincinnati Bengals still in the mix to become either the 18th to do it or the 29th to fail.

If we stretch the parameter to three seasons out, the odds improve to 24 of 45 (53.3%), but nine of those 24 returns to the conference championship were authored by Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the AFC — Tom Brady (four), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Patrick Mahomes (two) and Peyton Manning (one).

But there is another factor working against the Lions that might be more damning than just trying to rebound from losing a conference title match.

It was the way they lost, blowing a 17-point lead.

The scars of losing a big game can last days, weeks, maybe months. But melting down and blowing a three-possession lead … sometimes that can stick with people for life. And not just fans. Sometimes, the nightmares never end for players, coaches, and executives.

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The Lions became the 14th team since the 1970 merger to blow at least a 17-point lead to lose a postseason game.

And we can measure the ramifications of those losses not in terms of whether the team got back to the same spot in a timely manner but rather whether they completely cratered into oblivion.

Five of the previous 13 used the collapse to buoy the team and went further in the playoffs the following year than they had when they blew the big league. The most recent example of that was the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs, who tied the biggest blown lead in conference championship history when they allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to rally from 21-3 down for a 27-24 overtime triumph at Arrowhead.

Kansas City came back in 2022 and won the Super Bowl.

The most recent team to collapse prior to the Lions on Sunday is one that offers the doomsday version of the scenario. The 2022 Los Angeles Chargers blew a 27-point lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars and lost 31-30 in the Wild Card Round.

The Chargers did not bow up like the Chiefs. They went 5-12 this year and fired head coach Brandon Staley.

In 2019, the Houston Texans blew a 24-point lead against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the Divisional Round and fell apart, going 4-12 the following season and firing head coach Bill O’Brien after a 0-4 start.

Here is a look at each of the others:

2017 Chiefs: They blew an 18-point lead and lost to the Tennessee Titans 22-21 in the Wild Card Round. It was a defining game as it marked the end of the Alex Smith era and the start of Mahomes’ reign. Mahomes led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game the following year, starting a streak of six consecutive appearances.

2016 Falcons: Not the biggest collapse, but certainly the most infamous given that it came in the Super Bowl and, at the time, was the third largest in NFL postseason history. Atlanta blew a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

The Falcons responded with a decent year in 2017, going 10-6 to earn a Wild Card berth, where they knocked off the Los Angeles Rams on the road before falling on the road against the No. 1 seed and eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

2013 Chiefs: It’s crazy to see the Chiefs on this list three times in a nine-year span. In this game, they blew a 28-point lead and fell to the Indianapolis Colts 45-44. The following season, Kansas City went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, dropping Andy Reid to 10-10 in playoff games. He’s 15-6 since.

2012 Falcons: Atlanta was in almost the same position as Detroit on Sunday, leading the 49ers by 17 points in the NFC Championship Game. Only the Falcons blew their lead at home and fell into a morass, going 4-12 the following year.

2006 Patriots: Campbell and Jared Goff can take solace in knowing that even some of the game’s greats, such as Reid/Mahomes and Bill Belichick/Tom Brady, have experienced what they are and came out better for it. New England blew an 18-point lead and lost to the Colts 38-34 in the AFC Championship Game.

The following year, the Patriots went 16-0 and advanced to the Super Bowl.

2002 Giants: Another victim of the 49ers, New York built a 24-point lead only to lose 39-38 in a Wild Card match at Candlestick Park. The following season, they went 4-12, fired head coach Jim Fassel, and hired Tom Coughlin, who would lead them to two Super Bowl titles in the next eight seasons.

2002 Browns: The Tim Couch-led Cleveland squad went 9-7 to earn a Wild Card berth and built a 17-point lead at Heinz Field, only to watch the Steelers rally for a 36-33 win.

The following season they went 5-11 and fired Butch Davis.

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1992 Oilers: The biggest collapse in NFL regular season or playoff history stayed that way until the Colts blew a 33-point advantage at Minnesota in 2022. The Oilers led the Bills by 32 on the road in the Division Round and ended up losing 41-38.

Houston rebounded to go 12-4 and win the AFC Central, but in their return to the playoffs, they blew a 10-point halftime lead against Kansas City and fired coach Jack Pardee after a 1-9 start in 1994.

1985 Browns: One of the few teams on the list to rebound from a crushing loss and go even further the following year. Cleveland blew an 18-point lead to the Dolphins in a 1985 Divisional game, but the Browns rallied in 1986 to go 12-4, win the AFC Central, and reach the AFC Championship Game, where Earnest Byner’s infamous fumble still hurts Clevelanders more than any blown lead.

1972 49ers: The team that has victimized so many others got the list started more than 50 years ago by blowing an 18-point lead at home against the Dallas Cowboys.

San Francisco went 5-9 the following year and had two more losing seasons before canning coach Dick Nolan.

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