The “Dirty” Lions Lost + Other Reactions to Conference Championships

Lions fans react to a touchdown scored by 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey during the second half of the Lions' 34-31 loss in the NFC championship game in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. © Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK.

The Detroit Lions have been a great story this season with the rise from a three-win team two years ago to the NFC North title and their first playoff wins in 32 years. They were on the cusp of reaching the first Super Bowl in franchise history only to blow a 17-point halftime lead in a heartbreaking three-point NFC title game loss at San Francisco.  

The “Dirty” Lions Lost + Other Reactions to Conference Championships

The Lions were the sentimental favorites in the playoffs for most of America. But not for me.

I have Vikings purple in my blood after growing up in Minnesota and working 23 years for the team. I usually cheer for other NFC North teams if they’re not playing the Vikings in the playoffs, as I like to see our division looking good.

But I was rooting for the 49ers on Sunday because I think the Lions are the dirtiest team in the NFL today. The vast majority of media coverage lately on Detroit has heaped praise on Coach Dan Campbell for changing the team’s mindset to a highly physical brand of football and for his players embracing his vision for the new Lions.

Lions Lost
A fan reacts to a missed play leading to a punt during the Detroit Lions NFC Championship watch party at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. © Kimberly P. Mitchell / USA TODAY NETWORK.

But it has been evident to me that this Lions’ team takes far too many cheap shots against opposing players on defense. The starting safeties—Kerby Joseph and C.J. Gardner-Johnson–are the biggest culprits.

Joseph often tackles low at players’ knees. The Vikings will long remember how Joseph seriously injured his former teammate–Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson–in Week 16 with a diving tackle that resulted in a torn ACL and MCL for Hockenson and ended his season (further damaging the Vikings’ playoff chances). He did the exact same dive at Rams’ tight end Tyler Higbee in the wild card playoff game, leaving him with a torn ACL and MCL.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford called Joseph out after the play. “That’s a good hit, but you’re dirty as (expletive), and you know it,” a mic’d up Stafford said to Joseph at the time of the Higbee play.” It’s been on tape. I’ve seen it.” Stafford obviously was referring to the Hockenson hit.

Joseph also went low at 49ers tight end George Kittle on a sideline hit in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game, but Kittle was fortunately able to escape without a serious injury. 

Gardner-Johnson made a cheap shot hit on 49ers star receiver Deebo Samuel on Sunday when he wasn’t looking, and he went after Samuel’s shoulder that had knocked him out of the Packers game the week before and had him on the injury list going into the Detroit game.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports.

Another example of dirty Lions play in the title game came on one of 49ers QB Brock Purdy’s second-half runs. Defensive end Josh Paschal made a diving helmet-to-helmet hit on Purdy while on the ground. That should’ve drawn a 15-yard roughing penalty but didn’t.

Part of the problem is that with the NFL focused on keeping QBs safe and eliminating headshots against all players due to concussion concerns, the league has only legislated against going low on QB hits, not other tackle attempts. So Joseph was not penalized for the Hockenson or Higbee plays, and defensive players like Joseph think it’s ok to dive at players’ knees.

The NFL needs to make a rule against such hits on all players and not just going low on QBs. The physical but clean teams embrace the wrap-tackling method pushed by Pete Carroll, among other coaches. A player should always aim at the mid-section and not go low at the knees. 

The NFL is trying to make the game safer, yet they allow the networks to play up the Dan Campbell “bite a kneecap” line from his press conference when he was hired and show signs in the crowd about taking out knees. It’s not cute or funny when significant injuries occur. Perhaps the Lions fans would think differently if a Vikings safety made such a hit on a top Detroit player such as tight end Sam LaPorta or wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.

I believe Campbell’s message of overly physical playing has contributed to too many dirty plays. Oddly, a former player like him would endorse such hits (especially since so many of Joseph’s hits have come against tight ends, the position Campbell played for 11 years). Campbell should be better than the message he sends and how he allows some of his players to play. The same goes for Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn (a former NFL corner).

Choice for the NFC
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s about good sportsmanship and respecting the game and the players who play, even if they are the opposition. Yes, there are plenty of Lions players, such as Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow (the Chanhassen MN native) and Pro Bowl DE Aidan Hutchinson, who play the game with physicality but cleanly.

But players like Joseph, Gardner-Johnson, and Paschal send a bad message to young people who play youth, high school, and college football that you can make these dirty hits and play in the NFL. It’s just bad football and the wrong approach. I blame the Lions coaches, starting with Campbell and the NFL, for allowing such low and dangerous tackles.

Other Reactions to the Conference Championship Games:

1. Happy to see Campbell’s two bad fourth-down decisions backfire when he went for the first down on 4th-and-2 from the 49ers’ 28-yard line with a 14-point lead in the third quarter and on 4th-an-3 from the 49ers’ 30 with 7:38 remaining and the Lions trailing 27-24. Unless their kicker, Michael Badgley, is awful (which is not the case…he had an 82% completion rate from 40-49 yards over the past several years) or injured, you have to try to kick the field goal and go ahead by three scores in the first case and try to tie the game on the later play.

Campbell admitted he erred in running the ball on 3rd-and-Goal from the 49ers 1-yard line on the Lions’ final series instead of passing. When the run play was stuffed, he burned a much-needed timeout that forced an onside kick at game’s end after the Lions scored on a fourth-down pass play.   

The Lions also had two costly drops by Josh Reynolds that killed drives and a couple of poor throws by Goff in the second half after he had been efficient, along with an excellent rushing attack in the first half. The 49ers did a much better job on run defense in the second half (34 yards allowed and a big forced fumble on Jahmyr Gibbs that led to the game-tying TD after giving up 148 yards on the ground and three rushing TDs in the first half). The 49ers run D will have to be more consistent throughout the game in the Super Bowl against strong running Isiah Pacheco of the Chiefs.   

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports.

2. 49ers QB Brock Purdy proved to a lot of skeptics that he’s more than a game manager as he led his second straight come-from-behind playoff victory. He made a lot of great throws down the stretch and showed somewhat surprising running ability on several late-game scrambles for first downs. He also was fortunate on the game’s biggest play when his deep ball bounced off the face mask of Lions corner Kindle Vildor into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard gain to set up the TD that brought the 49ers within seven points in the third quarter.

I love the Purdy story of the last pick in the 2022 draft emerging as a Super Bowl QB in Year 2. He’ll need to play great on Super Sunday against the Chiefs’ second-ranked defense that shut down Lamar Jackson and forced three turnovers in the AFC title game win.

3. I think I’m done picking against Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs, at least for this year (thus a hint on my Super Bowl pick). He didn’t produce huge numbers passing (241 yards, one TD on a great throw to Travis Kelce) or running (15 yards), but he didn’t turn it over and played a solid game in grabbing the early lead with the knowledge that the Chiefs defense had things under control in the second half.

Great credit also goes to Andy Reid and his coaching staff (especially DC Steve Spagnuolo for his game plan with heavy blitzing that rattled Jackson). But the Chiefs also were fortunate on the biggest play of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter when Ravens rookie receiver Zay Flowers was stripped of the ball on a great play by L’Jarius Sneed at the Chiefs’ one-yard line as Flowers dived for the end zone (resulting in a touchback that kept the score 17-7).  

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports.

4. It should be an exciting Super Bowl with No. 1 NFC seed San Francisco vs. No. 3 AFC seed and defending champion Kansas City in Las Vegas in two weeks. And the NFL Office surely is excited to have the Chiefs in the big game as long as Taylor Swift makes it there from her overseas tour to watch Kelce (and you know she’ll make that happen).

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl