The Lions, losers no more, are the NFC North favorite. Can they top the Vikings, Packers and Bears?
For the first time in 22 years playing at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions have sold out of season tickets.
The downtown domed stadium that has housed 13 different double-digit-loss Lions teams just might be the most fashionable venue in the NFC North this fall. They’re favored to win the division, according to Fanduel Sportsbook odds. Such steep expectations can be a burden, of course, but extra pressure is hardly part of this group’s experience.
“I feel wind underneath my freaking wings, man,” coach Dan Campbell said.
The most recent time the Lions held a division title, it had a different name. They finished first in the NFC Central in 1993, making their three-decade wait for a banner to hang and an automatic home playoff game the second longest in the league behind the Cleveland Browns.
Jared Goff must pick up the turnover-free quarterback play he left off, with only one interception thrown and one fumble lost over the last 10 games while the Lions won eight to finish 9-8 for their first winning record since 2017.
Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the 12th overall pick in the draft, will need to prove he’s ready to be productive both carrying and catching the ball.
Aidan Hutchinson, the second overall pick last year, has to become an every-down force after a promising debut and help lift a defense that allowed the most yards in the NFL last season.
Perhaps most critical in Detroit’s quest to play up to these rare high hopes, however, is an ability to simply ignore them. Campbell, who’s entering his third year with the Lions, has cautioned his players against boarding the “hype train” that travels across the league each summer and inevitably leads an unwitting team or two astray.
“This thing has just taken off and is out of control right now,” Campbell said earlier this month. ”That’s fine as long as we stay focused on the job at hand and the work. We have to put the work in and earn it.”
Goff, who was the first overall pick in the 2016 draft and played in a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams, has found all the meaningless flattery amusing if not inspiring.
“Of course we’ve got good players, we’ve got good coaches, we’ve got a good team, but we haven’t done anything,” Goff said. “We’ve got some work to do to put a stamp on who we want to be.”
The Minnesota Vikings won the NFC North last season going away at 13-4, with a potent offense headlined by wide receiver Justin Jefferson that stayed largely intact. Even they seem to understand the reasons why so many people who follow the league are predicting such success for the Lions this season.
“I get it. They finished the season really, really well,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for what Dan and his staff are doing there.”
IN GOOD HANDS?
Goff had his best season last year since he guided the 2018 NFC champion Rams, maintaining a strong connection with Amon-Ra St. Brown that flourished in the second half of the 2021 season. St. Brown was 11th in the NFL in 2022 with 1,161 receiving yards, but there’s not much depth beyond him.
Jameson Williams, their 2022 first-round draft pick who spent much of his rookie year recovering from a torn ACL, must serve a six-game suspension for breaking league rules on gambling. Marvin Jones Jr. has returned to Detroit after two seasons in Jacksonville. Rookie Sam LaPorta, a second-round draft pick from tight end factory Iowa, will need to produce.
The Vikings are in a contract year with quarterback Kirk Cousins, making the future of their Jefferson-fueled offense murky without a clear successor on the roster. The performance of their defense, though, will be most vital in their quest for a second consecutive division title for the first time since 2009. Brian Flores replaced Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator and drew rave reviews during training camp for his energy and creativity for a unit that ranked ahead of only the Lions last season in yards allowed.
After trading Aaron Rodgers to the Jets and finally turning their hallowed job over to 2020 first-round draft pick Jordan Love, the Green Bay Packers have only three players in their 30s: left tackle David Bakhtiari, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and edge rusher Preston Smith. The Packers were encouraged by what they saw from Love during training camp, and he’ll be able to lean on the proven ball-carrying duo of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. Special teams is an area to watch, with a new kicker (Anders Carlson) and punter (Daniel Whelan) after moving on from veterans Mason Crosby and Pat O’Donnell.
The first year under coach Matt Eberflus was a struggle for the Chicago Bears at 3-14, but Justin Fields still has potential as a dual-threat quarterback as evidenced by his 719 rushing yards and five touchdowns over his last seven games. Pairing the newly acquired D.J. Moore with Darnell Mooney at wide receiver ought to give Fields a boost in confidence and productivity. He’ll need better protection, an area the Bears attempted to upgrade during the offseason after he tied for an NFL-most 55 sacks.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Lions, Vikings, Packers, Bears
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Detroit Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes (55)during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)