The Detroit Lions weren’t playing for a postseason spot by the time their regular-season finale kicked off. They were eliminated when the Seattle Seahawks won earlier in the day.
What happened that night in Lambeau Field said even more about the direction of the Lions than a playoff berth would have.
There was a lot of complaining about the way the NFL set up the Week 18 schedule, with the prevailing complaint being that the Green Bay Packers were being given an easy setup to win and make the playoffs against a disinterested Lions team. It’s like none of those people had paid any attention to the Lions the past couple seasons.
A Dan Campbell team wasn’t going to lay down and give the Packers a pass to the playoffs. They had plenty to play for, like the team’s first winning record since 2017. The Lions showed a lot of heart and played well, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit to get a 20-16 win. The Seahawks went to the playoffs but it felt like the Lions were the big winners. The win seemed far more significant than just keeping the Packers out of the playoffs.
Campbell’s speech after the game was telling.
“To do what you guys did, it shows the character of this team and what you’re about,” Campbell said in the locker room, via MLive.com. “We didn’t doubt it at all. Coaches didn’t doubt it at all. You guys didn’t doubt it. And, schedule makers, the whole deal, Seattle. You guys didn’t even bat an eye. You came out there and you respected it and did that — you earned your respect today. I couldn’t be more proud. These coaches couldn’t be more proud. Guys, do you understand, when I say this is a special group, this is a special group.
“And, by the way, this is just the beginning. This is just the beginning. All right, because now the idea will be down the road that all roads go through Detroit. That’s the way we got to think. That’s the way you got to think. But, man, when you can win on the road like we just did to a team that is doing everything it can to get it, man, it speaks volumes about who we are and what we’re capable of. I couldn’t be more proud. I’m serious, man. I’m just telling you right now, I’m going to drink some beer tonight.”
It has been a long time since the Lions and their fans could feel this kind of optimism going into a season. It was earned over the second half of last season.
The Lions started 1-6. Over the rest of the season the only losses were in the final seconds on Thanksgiving to a very good Buffalo Bills team, and a deflating loss at the Carolina Panthers. It can be misleading to only remember the Lions finishing 8-2 and ignore that 1-6 start. They were pretty bad to start the season and at one point it was worth wondering if Campbell was on the hot seat. But the Lions did rally. The offense took off. The defense got tougher. They had some impressive wins, like beating a hot Jacksonville Jaguars team and knocking off future playoff teams like the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. The Packers win allowed the Lions to go into the offseason believing they are on the cusp of bigger things.
“We got nine wins this season, and we were 5-1 in the division,” Campbell said after the Week 18 win, via the Detroit News. “We got better. And next year? We’ll be better.”
The Lions have a miserable history, and that’s one reason to be skeptical that they will cruise to a division title, even though they’re the clear betting favorite in the NFC North. But the Lions look pretty good on paper. They just can’t wait until November to start playing well.
The Lions had a good offseason. They needed to get better in the secondary, so they paid cornerback Cameron Sutton (three years, $33 million), safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (one year, $6.5 million) and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (one year, $6 million). It was tough for the Lions to see Gardner-Johnson go down with a knee injury early in camp, though the Lions are optimistic it’s not serious. Moseley came on a discount because he’s coming off a torn ACL, but Detroit has become a destination for free agents. Players see the culture Dan Campbell is building. The Lions lost running back Jamaal Williams but added David Montgomery, and that’s probably an upgrade. The draft haul was debated. The Lions had extra picks from the Matthew Stafford trade with the Los Angeles Rams, and they shocked many by using their two first-round picks on non-premium positions: running back Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12 and off-ball linebacker Jack Campbell at No. 18. The Lions had extra picks in the second and third rounds too, and grabbed tight end Sam LaPorta, safety Brian Branch, quarterback Hendon Hooker (a decent gamble when he slid to the third round) and defensive tackle Brodric Martin. Whether the Lions maximized the value of those picks is questionable, but adding six top-100 picks in one class will have an impact.
The Lions gave Jared Goff a vote of confidence in the offseason. They could have tried to chase a top quarterback in the draft, but instead they traded down from the sixth overall pick. The Lions drafted Hendon Hooker in the third round, but that’s a modest investment in a quarterback that got some first-round buzz by some analysts. Goff played well enough to earn the Lions’ trust. He looked like an afterthought in the Matthew Stafford trade just to even out the salaries, but he has been way more than that. Goff threw for 4,438 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. He fits offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense well. Goff has been criticized through the years but the Lions believe in him.
“He’s really a perfect fit for what we do and what we ask,” coach Dan Campbell said, via the Detroit Free Press.
BetMGM odds breakdown
Detroit fans love betting on their teams, so the Lions aren’t going to be great value at the betting window as they get hyped up this offseason. The Lions are +130 favorites to win the NFC North at BetMGM, despite zero division titles since 1993. No other NFC North team has shorter than +280 odds. The Lions’ win total is 9.5, and the over has -145 odds due to bets on Detroit. Bets on the over and the Lions to win the division make sense. They’re favored to win the NFC North for good reason. They played very well at the end of last season (though, again, that 1-6 start can’t be dismissed because it happened before the hot streak). Detroit fans might be homers when it comes to betting, but their optimism could be justified.
Yahoo’s fantasy take
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Yahoo drafters are keen on Jahmyr Gibbs — over the last seven days, his ADP has risen to 41.9. But the Lions have used platoon backfields in recent years, and I’m wondering if Gibbs has enough upside to justify this lofty cost.
“Last year the Lions were content to use D’Andre Swift between the 20s and Jamaal Williams as the designated scorer at the goal line. Perhaps a similar plan will follow, with Gibbs and David Montgomery stepping into the vacated roles. Mind you, Montgomery has not been an efficient short-yardage back in recent years, but Gibbs might not have the body to handle a heavy workload. He measured 5-9, 199 pounds at the combine, and logged a modest 294 carries in his last two college seasons.
“The Lions should have a decent offense and a particularly strong offensive line; the foundation is sturdy here. But I don’t like Gibbs quite as much as the market does. I’ll need him to slide a little bit before I consider selecting him.”
Stat to remember
Last season the Lions got 20.5 sacks from rookies, which is an NFL record according to the team’s site. Aidan Hutchinson had 9.5 sacks (Detroit thanks the Jacksonville Jaguars for taking Travon Walker over Hutchinson at No. 1 overall last year) and sixth-round pick James Houston had eight. They’re the first pair of rookie teammates to each have eight sacks in a season.
The Lions have a lot of questions on defense but some young players give them hope for a large improvement. Hutchinson could be a future NFL Defensive Player of the Year; there’s a reason the Lions ran the card to the table after the Jaguars picked Walker. If this year’s rookie class that includes linebacker Jack Campbell and safety Brian Branch pays off right away, the Lions should have a nice defensive core for years to come.
Can Jameson Williams turn this around?
Williams didn’t have a great rookie season, though his only catch went for a 41-yard touchdown. That was fine though. The Lions knew when they drafted Williams 12th overall that he was coming off an ACL injury late in his final college season. Last season was practically a redshirt year. Then came the suspension.
Williams was suspended six games for violating the NFL’s gambling policy. Whether you agree with the policy — Williams’ suspension was for betting non-NFL games at the team facility — it showed a remarkable lack of judgment from a player who already hadn’t done much as a rookie. Williams can be a huge asset as a big-play threat the offense needs after his suspension is up, but there’s pressure now. A second lost season in a row would put him on the road toward being a possible draft bust.
OK, we need to talk about the Lions as Super Bowl contenders. Yes, the same team that has won one playoff game since 1957. If they’re this high in the rankings, there has to be a reasonable argument to be made for them winning a championship. And there is. Once Ben Johnson returned as offensive coordinator, it ensured Detroit should be pretty good on that side of the ball again. The personnel additions to the defense and the natural progression from some young players on that side could lead to a huge leap. The division doesn’t seem too tough, and there’s a path for the Lions to get a No. 1 seed if the NFC North is bad. If it wasn’t for the Lions’ putrid history, we’d have no problem envisioning them as one of the teams that can win a Super Bowl, or at least make it that far.
We’ll let Dan Campbell tell you what the problem might be.
“I think as always, the thing that’s going to worry you is the hype train,” Campbell said last week, via NFL.com. “I mean this thing has just taken off and it’s out of control right now, and that’s fine, as long as we stay focused on the job at hand and the work.”
Maybe the offseason hype has the Lions too overconfident. We’re not that far removed from them being a 1-6 team with some ugly losses in that stretch. It’s not like you can’t envision a doomsday scenario in which the Lions’ lack of receiving depth is a problem, Jared Goff reverts to how he looked late in his Rams career, the defense is better but still bad and the Lions are the offseason darling that fizzled out. It would be crushing to the Lions and their fans if this season, which has so much excitement leading into it, ends without a playoff berth. But it could happen.
The crystal ball says …
The Lions are in a bit of a weird spot. They didn’t even make the playoffs last season, yet they’re one of the most talked-about teams of the offseason. I want to believe. Many, many teams use “culture” as an empty buzzword, but it really seems like Detroit has built one. Their win over the Packers to end last season spoke volumes. I think Detroit does well on offense again and improves on defense. We might be a year away from the defense making a leap into the top 10 or 12 of the league, and that could preclude a playoff run. But a division title, on the 30th anniversary of the Lions winning the NFC Central, seems reasonable. And that would be a pretty good season for the Lions.
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