NFL’s Cinderella Lions Add First-Timer Subplot to Title Games

The Detroit Lions are clearly the Cinderella team in this season’s NFL playoffs, having never won or even been to the Super Bowl. If they win the next two games, however, the Lions can complete a rare run of first-time champions in all four of the major North American team sports.

During the 2023 season, the Denver Nuggets won the NBA, the Vegas Golden Knights took the NHL’s Stanley Cup, and the Texas Rangers captured the World Series.

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The Lions could make it a clean first-timers’ sweep at Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas.

“Euphoria hits at that point,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said recently about what it felt like the moment his club defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the World Series in five games.

Before that, though, Detroit has some work to do. Fox Sports lists the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens as the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Sunday’s conference championship games begin with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against the Ravens for the AFC title at 3 p.m. ET on CBS. Then it’s the Lions against the 49ers for the NFC title at 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

The Lions defeated the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to earn their place against the Niners at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Before this postseason they hadn’t won a playoff game since 1992, losing their last championship tilt that season, 41-10, to the Washington Redskins at old RFK Stadium.

That’s the closest they’ve come to a Super Bowl berth. They last won an NFL championship in 1957, a decade before the first Super Bowl and the eventual merger of the NFL and AFL that began the modern era.

The Niners are heavily favored to defeat the Lions by a 74.1% to 25.9% margin, ESPN reported. But sometimes long odds do come through. San Francisco is a seven-point favorite in its third NFC title game in a row and fourth in the past five seasons. They lost the last two.

“We have to play an aggressive style of football [to win],” Lions coach Dan Campbell said after Sunday’s late win over Tampa Bay. “That’s the way we do it.”

The Lions will be on the road for the first time in these playoffs and won’t have the advantage of playing under the home dome of Ford Field.

“It was electric in there,” Campbell said. “Back-to-back weeks. The eardrums are just banging. If you’re an opponent that’s tough to play in. You’ll never forget that environment.”

In addition to the Lions, the NFL’s semifinals offer a nice mix of teams. The Niners haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1995, although they’ve lost twice since then, to the Ravens by three points in 2013 and the Chiefs by 11 in 2020.

The Ravens and Niners are the top teams in their respective conferences and a rematch in Allegiant Stadium of the 2013 game is a distinct possibility. In that one it was the battle of the brother coaches: Jim for the Niners and John for the Ravens. John won and is still the coach in Baltimore.

This year, John is following by weeks his brother’s Michigan win over Washington in the NCAA title game. A Super Bowl win after his brother’s collegiate victory would be quite a tandem.

The Michigan win, with his father and brother in attendance, was Jim’s first championship as a coach at either the pro or collegiate level.

“I can finally sit at the big person’s table in the family,” Jim said that night after the win.

The Chiefs, under coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, are as close to an NFL dynasty as there is right now. Add Kelce’s recently retired brother, Jason, who appeared bare-chested in Buffalo, and all the Taylor Swift drama, and they have the celebrity factor, too. It’s must-see TV—50 million football fans saw the Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills on the road at Highmark Stadium. They’ll be back on the road in Baltimore this weekend with all eyes on the NFL’s top-paid QBs—Mahomes vs. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, the probable NFL MVP.

Against Buffalo, Mahomes and Kelce connected on a pair of TD passes, giving them 16 overall to set a playoff record.

“It was something special,” Mahomes said about breaking a record held by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski after the game in Buffalo. “It speaks to Travis and his hard work. Being able to go out and make big plays in big games.”

The Ravens are a 3.5-point favorite over the Chiefs, who have been to the Super Bowl three times in the last four years, winning twice, including last year’s 38-35 thriller over the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Mahomes said he remains undaunted no matter where the Chiefs play, this time in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium. It’s their sixth AFC title game in a row, the previous five on their home turf of Arrowhead Stadium.

These are “epic games like the ones I grew up watching when I was a kid,” Mahomes said. “It’s always fun to come together as a team and get the win no matter where you play. We take it as a challenge. It’s always y’all against everybody. It’s great to come into these great environments and get a win.”

Will it be a first-timer or repeat champion in Vegas? To be determined.

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