Wait till next year for Detroit Lions: How many AFC/NFC runners-up returned the next year? (2024)

The Detroit Lions’ second-half collapse in Sunday’s NFC championship game is not exactly something to build around.

But a season ago, they were outside the NFL playoffs completely, with a 31-year playoff victory drought to boot. And now? Two playoff wins and an appearance that left them 30 good minutes from the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

It’s enough to make one say, as Lions fans certainly have so many Januarys before: Wait till next year!

But how have NFL teams that lost in the conference championships actually fared over the past five seasons? Of the past 10 conference title game runners-up, six have returned to the title game the next season. Here’s the breakdown:

MITCH ALBOM:For Detroit Lions fans, it's the morning after the morning after — and it still hurts

2022: San Francisco 49ers & Cincinnati Bengals

NFC: The Niners tied up their 2022 NFC title game with the Eagles 6:31 into the second quarter and that was about the last good thing that happened, as they lost two QBs to injury — remember, Josh Johnson attempted 13 passes — and lost, 31-7. This season went slightly better, as Brock Purdy stayed healthy throughout and the 49ers, outside of a three-game losing streak, dominated the NFC to earn the No. 1 seed and, eventually (see above) nab a Super Bowl berth.

AFC: The defending conference champs forgot Rule No. 1 of the AFC title game: Don’t let Patrick Mahomes have the ball. Forced to punt in the final minute, the Bengals were knocked off by a 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left. 2023 had a similarly dour finish, stretched out over their final nine games: After a 5-3 start, QB Joe Burrow went down for the season in Week 10 and the Bengals finished 4-5 to miss the playoffs at 9-8.

[ MUST LISTEN: Listen below as "Carlos and Shawn" react from Santa Clara to the Detroit Lions' Super Bowl dream ending in a crushing loss to the 49ers. Also available anywhere you listen to podcasts (Apple, Spotify) ]

2021: 49ers & Kansas City Chiefs

NFC: In the title game, the Niners led by 3 at the half and by 10 entering the fourth quarter. And then L.A.’s Matthew Stafford got ahold of one of the fourth quarter invincibility icons he used so often in Detroit and led the Rams to 13 points and a 20-17 victory. The 49ers’ follow-up campaign was a little rocky — remember, they started with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and finished the playoffs with Christian McCaffrey as the emergency QB — but they did go 13-4, discover Purdy was start-worthy and, ahem, return to the title game.

AFC: The Chiefs’ loss in overtime — after tying it up with 3 seconds left (remember Rule No. 1 of the AFC title game?) denied them what could have now been five straight Super Bowl trips. They bounced back OK in 2022, we’d say, going 14-3 and grabbing the No. 1 seed en route to a Super Bowl return.

2020: Green Bay Packers & Buffalo Bills

NFC: The 2020 NFC title game matchup feels like a lifetime ago, with Tom Brady now retired (and set to become a broadcaster next season) and Aaron Rodgers a New York Jet (for four plays, at least). The Packers, meanwhile, went from three losses in 2020 to four in 2021 — mainly because the NFL went to a 17-game schedule. They still won 13 games and earned the No. 1 seed before getting upset in the divisional round.

Wait till next year for Detroit Lions: How many AFC/NFC runners-up returned the next year? (2)

AFC: The Bills forgot AFC title game Rule No. 1 a whole bunch, and Mahomes and his Chiefs scored a whole bunch to return to the Super Bowl with a 38-24 win. The Bills, meanwhile, went from 13-3 and the No. 2 seed in 2020 to 11-6 and the No. 3 seed in 2021, which meant another trip to Kansas City — this time in the divisional round (in which they also ignored Rule No. 1, to their displeasure in an epic 42-36 overtime loss).

SHAWN WINDSOR:Was that the Lions' last shot? Not if you believe in Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes.

2019: Packers & Tennessee Titans

NFC: Aaron Rodgers and the second-seeded Pack lost the NFC title game, 37-20, to the top-seeded Niners and Garoppolo, who attempted all of eight passes (and completed six). The next season went a bit better, as the Packers grabbed the top seed with a 13-3 record … only to lose in the conference championship to some Michigan alumnus in his first season in the NFC.

AFC: The feel-good story of the playoffs — the sixth-seeded Titans upset the Patriots and Ravens on the road to losing to the Chiefs in Kansas City (see Rule No. 1). Tennessee was a feel-good story in 2020 as well, going 11-5 and winning their first division title since 2008; that ended roughly, however, with a first-round loss to the Ravens — the Titans haven’t won a playoff game since reaching the 2019 AFC title game.

2018: 49ers & Chiefs

NFC & AFC: These guys seem familiar, don’t they? Both returned to their respective conference title games the next season (and won them, but we won’t spoil the result of their first Super Bowl matchup for you) and again and again and …

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Wait till next year for Detroit Lions: How many AFC/NFC runners-up returned the next year? (2024)
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