KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For context, it’s relevant to note that the Kansas City Chiefs were without both future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce and All-Pro defensive lineman Chris Jones against the Detroit Lions.
Still, the preseason hype about the Lions just may be spot-on.
The Lions believe they’re on the upswing after their strong finish last season, and nothing that occurred in Week 1 of this season diminished the hopes of the franchise’s long-suffering fans. After the Chiefs unveiled their Super Bowl LVII championship banner Thursday night and took the first steps (albeit unsteadily) in their pursuit of back-to-back titles, the visiting Lions proved to be the true headliners in a 21-20 victory at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
While stunning the Chiefs in the only game of the NFL’s opening night, the Lions at times looked like the bunch that went 8-2 in their final 10 games of the 2022-23 season after beginning 1-6 in their first seven games. Midway through the fourth quarter, a celebration erupted along Detroit’s sideline after quarterback Jared Goff directed a nine-play, 75-yard drive (running back David Montgomery covered the final eight yards into the end zone) to help the team take a one-point lead it would maintain.
Afterward in an eerily quiet Arrowhead Stadium, Goff reveled in the moment.
“It’s special,” said Goff, who passed for 253 yards and a touchdown. “We’re to the point now where we are built for an environment like this, to go on the road to anywhere and pull out a win. Even if it’s ugly, it’s a win. We’re happy about it.”
Clearly, the Chiefs’ offense was out of sync without Kelce, who was sidelined because of a knee injury. And most of the members of the Chiefs’ receiving corps who did play didn’t step up to help the league’s best player, quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Uncharacteristically, Chiefs receivers dropped an inordinately high number of passes and played poorly in general.
The Chiefs’ defense fared better. The group experienced many impressive moments against the Lions.
Undoubtedly, however, the unit would have been bolstered by Jones’ presence in the lineup. Arguably the NFL’s premier interior pass rusher last season, Jones missed all of training camp and the preseason in an effort to pressure Chiefs management to offer him a new, more lucrative deal.
But enough about the Chiefs for now. The Lions earned the spotlight.
Although a victory in a Week 1 does not a successful season make, the Lions have been building something for a good stretch now.
As Goff took a knee in the victory formation and the final seconds ticked off the game clock, the thrilled Lions moved their celebration from the sideline to the field. No one was happier than coach Dan Campbell, who said he saw it coming.
“We expected to win this game,” Campbell said. “We came in here and we knew what we needed to do.
“I didn’t learn anything [about the Lions from the victory]. I got verification on what I already knew: This is a resilient team.”
Beginning the third year of his strong partnership with general manager Brad Holmes, one of only eight Black general managers s in the NFL, Campbell continues to guide the Lions in the right direction on the field. It’s a fact: There’s buzz around the Lions for good reason.
Campbell, for one, is pumped up for sure.
“Any win at this point, from what we have [been] enduring the last couple of years, is going to feel good,” Campbell said. “I am proud of the guys. I am proud of the way we worked. I am proud of the staff. I am proud of Brad [Holmes]. He constructed this and we got a chance.”
“It is because of the way we practice and the guys we have in this locker room, the team that Brad [Holmes] has built, the resilience we have. I don’t know how to describe it, but every game we have a chance, even if we are down by 21.” — Amon-Ra St. Brown
The Lions are a much better team than the one Campbell and Holmes inherited before the start of the 2021-22 season.
A tight end during his 10-year NFL career as a player, including his final three seasons with Detroit, Campbell formerly served as the assistant head coach/tight ends coach for the New Orleans Saints. Holmes – who was a four-year football letterman and graduated cum laude from North Carolina A&T – joined the Lions after working in several executive positions for the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams.
During their first season together, the team finished 3-13-1, which was pretty much what Lions fans had come to expect from their favorite team. During the 2008-09 season, the Lions went 0-16. They last won a division title in the 1993-94 season. The team hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1991-92 season.
With Holmes picking the players, Campbell coaching them and both men working together to change Detroit’s culture, the Lions’ roller-coaster 2022-23 season ended with them enjoying their first winning record (9-8) since the 2017-18 season (9-7). The past two years, Holmes has made several shrewd moves in the draft and Campbell and Detroit’s assistant coaches, many of whom were successful NFL players, have put players in position to thrive.
In the fourth round of the 2021 draft, Holmes selected wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown with the 112th overall pick. The former USC standout has become a cornerstone of the Campbell-Homes plan to transform a perennial loser into (hopefully) a perennial winner. On Thursday, Goff and St. Brown teamed up on a 9-yard touchdown pass to open the game’s scoring.
The Lions have already come a long, long way, St. Brown said.
“Looking back, when I was a rookie, these tight games that we had, it felt like we never finished,” said St. Brown, who had six receptions for 71 yards. “When I was a rookie, we’d have close games and think we were probably going to lose. Now, we get in these games, and we never feel like we are going to lose anything. Even when we are down, we feel like we are going to come back.
“It is because of the way we practice and the guys we have in this locker room, the team that Brad [Holmes] has built, the resilience we have. I don’t know how to describe it, but every game we have a chance, even if we are down by 21. … I go into every game thinking we better win and if we don’t, there is something wrong. This is the mentality I feel like we all have. That confidence, that swagger we have, hopefully you guys [reporters] can see it too from the outside in. I love this team.”
On defense, coordinator Aaron Glenn got into a groove late season. Apparently, Glenn remained in a good place against the Chiefs, whose receivers helped with their ill-timed bloopers. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, selected second overall in the 2022 draft, is a sensational pass rusher and among the team’s leaders on that side of the ball.
Against the Chiefs, rookie cornerback Brian Branch returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown on a deflected pass off the hands of wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the 12th overall pick in the 2023 draft, got off to a solid start with 42 yards rushing and a 6-yard average.
Finally, there’s significant talent on the Lions’ roster. Combined with the team’s new, tough mindset, that forms a great foundation.
The Lions acknowledged they didn’t play as well as they would have preferred against the Chiefs, yet they still won. How many times has a similar sentence been written about the Lions, well, ever?
“We just didn’t play our best ball. We kind of got away with one in some ways, but that’s what good teams do,” Goff said. “When you don’t play your best, but you find a way in the fourth quarter to get a stop on defense, to get a first down on offense, to make [timely plays] on that long drive we had. That’s what we’re starting to become now and it’s a good feeling.”
And after the Lions got off to a great start on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions, don’t be surprised if the good times keep rolling for them this season and beyond.