Matt Patricia has been the favorite to succeed Jim Caldwell as Detroit Lions coach since long before Caldwell was fired.

Now, the Lions could be even closer to making it happen.

ESPN reported Sunday that Patricia "likely" will become the Lions' next head coach once the New England Patriots' season is finished.

This has been the widely held belief in NFL circles for some time, though reports last week suggesting that Patricia would favor the vacant New York Giants' job clouded matters.

Still, all signs continue to point to the Lions hiring Patricia, and this is the strongest indication yet that it will indeed happen.

The Lions haven't interviewed anyone since Jan. 5, when they flew to New England to sit down with Patricia. They haven't made any moves on their No. 2 choice, Mike Vrabel, even though he's eligible to be hired at any moment. They haven't even brought any of their other candidates in for a second interview.

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Patricia cannot be hired and the Lions cannot execute a contract or agree to execute a contract with him until after the Patriots are finished with the playoffs.

New England beat the Tennessee Titans, 35-14, on Saturday night to advance to its seventh straight AFC championship game.

The Patriots will host the winner of Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers-Jacksonville Jaguars matchup next week at Gillette Stadium. If they advance to their third Super Bowl in four seasons, the Lions could interview Patricia for a second time during the bye week before the game but the soonest they could hire him as head coach would be Feb. 5.

ESPN reported Sunday that "eventually the deal (with the Lions and Patricia) is likely to get done." And once the Giants fill their vacancy - they have reportedly whittled their list down Patricia, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur - the only thing in the way will be finalizing a contract.

So why has Patricia emerged as the Lions' favorite?

Well, it starts with his long-standing relationship with Lions general manager Bob Quinn. The two worked together for 12 seasons in New England, have a mutual respect for one another, and people around the league have pegged Patricia as Caldwell's likely replacement since Quinn was hired in January of 2016.

Beyond that, Patricia is well respected for his work with New England's defense and the way he's gone about building relationships inside the Patriots' locker room.

An offensive lineman who studied aeronautical engineering at Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1990s, Patricia had three stops as a graduate or part-time assistant before breaking into the NFL as a low-level assistant with the Patriots.

He endeared himself to Bill Belichick with his work ethic and intelligence early in Patriots tenure, spent time coaching on both sides of the ball, and eventually took over as defensive coordinator in 2012.

In six seasons with Patricia as their defensive coordinator, the Patriots have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense six times, and in the top five each of the last two years.

"I think that the one thing that everybody needs to understand about Matt Patricia is that he is a rocket scientist," former Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher said. "That is his master and his degree. That guy is very good with numbers and he’s very good with angles and what not, and he’s very intelligent and expects a lot."

Patricia, who interviewed for jobs with the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams in previous seasons, and with the Arizona Cardinals in addition to the Lions and Giants this year, checks off many of the boxes Quinn said he was looking for when stared his coaching search 13 days ago.

At the time, Quinn said he wanted a strong leader who excelled at situational football and was capable of bringing the Lions a champonship.

"At the end of the day, I want to take this team to the next level, and to me that’s winning championships, that’s winning playoff games and that’s winning the Super Bowl," Quinn said. "Ultimately, I’m the person in charge of football operation here at the Lions, and ultimately the record that we’ve had the last two years is on me. So, last year we went 9-7 and lost a playoff game, and this year we went 9-7 and didn’t get the playoffs. So, that’s ultimately my record, and I take full ownership of that. Really, the standards that I have and the Ford family has for this team are greater than that, and my goal is to go out and find the best head coach to bring us that championship."

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