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Detroit Lions fans will see a familiar face as they host the Los Angeles Rams playoff

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The NFL postseason is underway, with several compelling storylines beyond touchdowns and tackles, perhaps none more so than the Detroit Lions hosting their first home playoff game in three decades. As Quinn Klinefelter reports from member station WDET, the Lions face the Los Angeles Rams, led by a player who some Detroit fans cannot quite view as the enemy.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: It was about two years ago, and veteran Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had just achieved every NFL player's dream - winning the Super Bowl. Except Stafford was no longer the Lions' quarterback. He'd engineered a trade that season to the Los Angeles Rams. Yet moments after finally holding the championship trophy, Stafford told the NFL Network Detroit fans' love had followed him to the West Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW STAFFORD: It was amazing. There's no reason for them to cheer for me anymore, and the fact that they did was just a true testament to who they are as people and who they are as fans. To have that support all the way across the country here, playing in this game, means the world to me and my wife and my family. They helped us through a bunch of tough times and are a huge reason I'm sitting here today.

KLINEFELTER: Stafford suffered through a dozen years of Detroit trying and failing to build a contending team. But rather than exult in his exit to the Rams, he left Detroit a fond farewell video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

M STAFFORD: To the Lions fans hearing this, there is no me without you. That's why I'm saying thank you, not goodbye.

(CHEERING)

KLINEFELTER: His wife, Kelly Stafford, still hosts a podcast with a Detroit television reporter. She says returning now to a city where fans watched with concern while she dealt with a highly publicized brain tumor makes it hard for her not to cheer for the Lions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY STAFFORD: The support that that city gave us on some of the hardest times of our lives, I won't ever forget.

KLINEFELTER: Instead, she'll watch her husband go against the player Los Angeles traded for Stafford, who helped Detroit finally build a championship contender. But Lions quarterback Jared Goff says he cannot view the contest as a chance for revenge against a Rams team that gave up on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED GOFF: You know, I so badly want to win a playoff game for the city that hasn't had one in so long, and that's so much more important than anything personally for me. I want to be a part of this win and do my job to the best of my ability.

KLINEFELTER: Detroit last won a playoff game in 1991. Now, the excitement that the team is not a perennial NFL doormat fills places like Harry's Sports Bar in the city's downtown. Detroiter Justin Ivory says the new Lions are raising the spirits of a city only a decade removed from declaring bankruptcy.

JUSTIN IVORY: Yeah, I hear people talking about it all the time. I think it's very fitting for where Detroit is as a city, you know, as we're going through this rebirth of sorts, that, dare I say, one of our most struggling teams historically are getting a rebirth as well. So it's fitting. It's poetic, even.

KLINEFELTER: Bartender Kelly Campbell says the NFL could not have written a better script to draw positive attention to the Motor City.

KELLY CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we had a family last week come from Alaska just to be in town for the Lions to be in the playoffs. People just want to be a part of it. It's like a Hollywood movie, right? It's really cool to be a part of.

KLINEFELTER: But Detroiters like Aaron McCray fear they might have seen this show before. McCray says he was at the Lions' last playoff victory in 1991, but stepped back from being a fan as the team became mired in mediocrity. And now, he says, Detroit's finally returning to the playoffs against a Ram squad steered by the beloved Stafford.

AARON MCCRAY: Lions fans are so used to things going wrong. That's the ultimate thing that could go wrong is to trade away your quarterback, and he comes back and beats you in the playoffs. That would be the most Lions result that there could be.

KLINEFELTER: It's a game where, for Detroit fans, victory or defeat will in some ways truly taste bittersweet.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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