Nobody could help themselves from hyping the Detroit Lions this offseason — and for good reason. Coach Dan Campbell’s energy is infectious, the offense was a laser show at the end of last season and the team’s young, foundational players all looked primed to send this team into overdrive.
All the pieces were there for the Lions to finally turn the corner after being the laughingstock of the league a short two seasons ago when they finished with a 3-13-1 record.
Beating the defending Super Bowl champions in Week 1 is the perfect way to make sure all of that hype wasn’t for nothing.
The Lions took the Kansas City Chiefs down to the wire as both teams traded messy blows back and forth. Neither team looked its best coming out of the locker room for the first time this season. The Lions’ offense came and went for most of the first three quarters, while Patrick Mahomes was failed by his receivers left, right and center. The game was the kind of affair you might expect from a depleted Chiefs roster battling a Super Bowl hangover and from a supremely young Lions roster getting their legs under them.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Lions really came alive. More importantly, they became the team we thought they were supposed to be.
With their first possession of the fourth quarter, the Lions offense ripped off a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that milked more than five minutes off the clock. Six of those plays were runs, and two of them were intermediate throws over the middle from Jared Goff, both to wide receiver Josh Reynolds. Running back David Montgomery finished the drive off with a violent eight-yard run that featured multiple discarded Chiefs defenders.
The drive was the perfect formula of jab-jab-haymaker that this Detroit roster was built to wear defenses down with.
That kind of performance was part of the calculus with this Lions team, though. The offense was supposed to be good. A few pieces were swapped in and out of this team’s lineup over the offseason, but this is largely the same group that finished last season as a dominant unit. Detroit just needed a few quarters to gather itself.
Defense was the real question for the young Lions. They finished 27th in defensive DVOA last season and 29th the year before. They’ve spent an ungodly amount of draft capital trying to fix the defense with a homegrown approach, but there was no guarantee if or when that would work. None of the Lions’ first- or second-year defenders, aside from Aidan Hutchinson, were locks to make an impact this season. Everything was all hope and projection.
That doesn’t appear to be a concern anymore. While the Lions’ defense caught some lucky breaks thanks to a Chiefs receiving corps that played like an XFL unit, Detroit’s young players all shined. Whether it was stars, potential stars or role players, almost every young Lions defender had a key moment in this game, if not a stellar game from start to finish.
Hutchinson was the leader of the pride. Don’t be fooled by the absence of sacks in his box score; he was a terror from start to finish. Mahomes constantly had to deal with the right side of the pocket getting crushed. Hutchinson even registered a few pressures on inside rushes, either via alignment or a line twist. He was everywhere.
What’s more encouraging is all the Lions’ other young players who stepped up when they got an opportunity.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) September 8, 2023
Rookie safety Brian Branch housed an interception that bounced off Kadarius Toney‘s hands. That doesn’t sound too sexy at first, but Branch was driving full force to cut off the shallow route Toney was running, only to stop in an instant and catch the ball behind him. There are a lot of other defensive backs out there who don’t have the stop-start athleticism and hand-eye coordination to finish that play.
Rookie linebacker Jack Campbell made an impressive coverage play of his own just two plays earlier. Mahomes tried finding Toney on an intermediate crossing route, only for Campbell to melt back to the middle of the field and knock the ball down. Campbell’s 6-foot-4 frame and coverage potential are why the Lions drafted him so high (with pick No. 18), and he repaid them for it a little on that play.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) September 8, 2023
Even the Lions’ less-heralded youngsters came up in the clutch. Defensive end Josh Paschal, a second-round pick a year ago, made arguably the biggest stop of the game. The Chiefs tried running a fake sneak on third-and-1 that became a jet sweep to receiver Rashee Rice on their second-to-last drive, but Paschal wasn’t having it. Paschal shot right through the line and put Rice in the ground, forcing the Chiefs to punt.
One game doesn’t make the Lions world-beaters. It’s worth remembering the Chiefs were missing two of their three star players: Travis Kelce and Chris Jones. The Lions got to run through a Jones-less front, and there’s a chance that the Chiefs’ putrid wide receiver play doesn’t necessarily reflect the true quality of the Lions’ improved defense.
The hedging on my end aside, the Lions should celebrate this moment. A win like this over the NFL’s juggernaut, with an offensive plan coming together and investment in the defense finally bearing fruits, is the culmination of years of a teeth-gritting rebuild. Getting this win is a special kind of dopamine hit not many teams ever get to experience.
This isn’t the final destination for these Lions, though. This is a franchise that has never strung together double-digit win seasons in the modern era. Detroit hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016 and hasn’t won its division since 1993. One win isn’t enough to satisfy a decade-long hunger for winning.
The point of the Lions’ slow, homegrown rebuild wasn’t to merely be competitive but to create a foundation with which they can sustain success over a season and into the playoffs.
Now they have a young, capable roster and a wide-open NFC North that looks ripe for the taking. Heck, the NFC-at-large is wide open beyond a small handful of teams. This is the most pivotal moment in the franchise’s recent history, and it feels as though the stars have aligned for them to take advantage of it.