The Detroit Lions entered the season with goals of making the playoffs, winning the division and seeing what happens from there. It was the first time leadership has openly declared the Lions were ready to compete, ready to push for the playoffs and ready to emerge from their rebuild.
“It’s about raising the expectations, you know?” coach Dan Campbell said at the owners’ meetings in March. “We need to be thinking that way. Everything about what we do has to have that type of purpose. Our standard has always been about winning, man. You’re trying to win every game. But ultimately, I think, to take the next step, you’re shooting for the division.”
Through eight games, the Lions have positioned themselves to accomplish those goals. They’re 6-2 and atop a struggling NFC North division. They have the second-best record in the NFC, an offense that can score with anyone, a much-improved defense and a team of budding young talent. It’s a good spot to be in.
At the midway point, we’ve seen enough to determine the Lions are a good football team. But what will the second half bring?
Here are some predictions.
Three Lions players will make All-Rookie teams
Detroit’s 2023 NFL Draft was about adding impact players who could contribute right away and help the team win. GM Brad Holmes said as much on the final day of the draft, and his vision is clear given the success of the team and its rookies.
Ultimately, the Lions left draft weekend with eight draft picks. Seven of them have already played this season. The only one who hasn’t is quarterback Hendon Hooker, who’s still on IR as he works his way back from a torn ACL.
Brian Branch began his career with a pick six of Patrick Mahomes and has been one of the better rookie defenders — and one of the league’s best nickels period — when healthy. Sam LaPorta has played like one of the best tight ends in football, a remarkable feat considering the position he plays. And Jahmyr Gibbs, perhaps a little late to the party, had a breakout game against the Raiders with 189 scrimmage yards, demonstrating all the reasons why the Lions drafted him 12th overall. Those three look like locks for All-Rookie teams if health permits, and it’s not too late for linebacker Jack Campbell to join them as the game continues to slow down for him.
Aidan Hutchinson will be in DPOY conversation, but won’t win
Hutchinson has been an absolute menace this year, even if his sack total (4 1/2) doesn’t reflect it.
His 46 pressures rank second in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, trailing only Maxx Crosby’s 47 through eight weeks. His pass rush win rate of 18.7 percent is 10th in the NFL. He’s been the best player on a much-improved Lions defense that ranks seventh in yards allowed per game and second in rushing defense. Per BetMGM, Hutchinson has the fourth-best odds to win the award at +1800, trailing only Micah Parsons, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt.
Hutchinson will likely need to improve his traditional stats (sacks, TFLs, etc.) but he’s been one of the better defenders in the NFL this season. There’s no reason to think he can’t remain in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion, even if he doesn’t ultimately win it.
Dan Campbell will win Coach of the Year
It’s a stacked race for Coach of the Year. Doug Pederson has the Jaguars at 6-2, John Harbaugh continues to win in Baltimore and Mike McDaniel, Pete Carroll, Nick Sirianni, Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan should remain in the mix with winning teams.
But if the Lions accomplish their goals this season, it’ll be hard not to hand the award to Campbell. By his third season, he has the Lions at 6-2, near the top of the NFC standings, staring down this franchise’s first division title in 30 years. He’d have the record and the narrative on his side. That’s a powerful combo.
The Lions will have at least six Pro Bowlers
Barring a Super Bowl run, it’s safe to say the Lions will be well-represented at the Pro Bowl.
Winning teams tend to warrant more players in the Pro Bowl, and the Lions have several deserving candidates. Center Frank Ragnow was voted in last year and continues to play at a high level. Right tackle Penei Sewell, wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and quarterback Jared Goff made it in as alternates a year ago and have been even better this season. Hutchinson seems like a lock and at this rate, LaPorta isn’t far behind. Defensive tackle Alim McNeill has been excellent this season and could earn the nod for the first time in his career. A few others could work their way into the conversation by the end of the year.
Six might be ambitious, but it’s within reason.
The Lions will win their division for the first time in 30 years
The last time the Lions won their division, it was called the NFC Central. Yes, it’s been that long. It was 1993, to be exact. But with the way the team is playing this season, and the way the rest of the division looks, it would be a major letdown if the Lions somehow don’t win the NFC North this season.
Look around the division. The Bears (2-7) have yet to turn the corner and are still rebuilding. The Packers (3-5) haven’t been much better, though they beat the Rams on Sunday after losing four straight. And while the Vikings (5-4) should be commended for winning four straight, quarterback Kirk Cousins is still out for the rest of the season with a torn Achilles. The Lions have five more games against these teams. This division is Detroit’s for the taking. It’s clearly head and shoulders above the rest.
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The Lions will lock up the NFC’s No. 2 seed
I don’t feel great about this, but at the very least, there’s a path to the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the Lions.
Let’s start with the obvious: They’re already slotted in as the NFC’s 2-seed through eight games. That’s half a season of data that tells us the Lions are a capable football team. And looking at their second-half schedule, along with the schedules of other contenders, the Lions have the least-daunting road ahead.
Detroit’s remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .434 — the fourth-easiest in the NFL. They’ll face the Chargers (3-4), Bears (twice), Packers, Saints (5-4), Broncos (3-5), Vikings (twice) and the Cowboys (5-3).
Meanwhile, here’s how it stacks up for others in the NFC:
The Eagles have the 10th-easiest (.471) remaining schedule. The Lions will have to take care of business, but they are well-positioned for a strong finish that could help them capture the No. 2 seed. In theory, that would help them accomplish the final prediction on this list.
The Lions will win their first playoff game since the 1991 season
If the Lions lock up the No. 2 seed, I feel confident in their chances of beating the teams in contention for the No. 7 seed.
Minnesota would be starting either a rookie QB in Jaren Hall or newcomer Joshua Dobbs. The Vikings have an improved defense, but it’ll be hard for them to make up for the absence of Cousins. None of the other teams potentially in the mix — the Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers, Rams or Commanders — would be favored over the Lions at this point. Detroit has already beaten Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and faces New Orleans on Dec. 3.
If Detroit falls to the No. 3 seed and finds itself facing one of Dallas, Seattle or San Francisco, that’s a different story, of course. Finishing strong down the stretch and locking up the No. 2 seed is of the utmost importance. But at the very least, it appears the Lions are set to host a playoff game at Ford Field. Don’t underestimate the impact of home-field advantage.
Regardless, though, the Lions have proven capable of hanging with some of the NFL’s best the last two seasons — even in losses. They lost by 4 points or less to the Eagles, Dolphins and Bills last season, and beat the Jaguars 40-14. This season, they held Mahomes in check and won in Week 1, went down to the wire with the Seahawks and have largely been competitive in most of their games (if you burn the Ravens tape).
This feels like the year they get it done. What happens from there is up for discussion.
(Top photo of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Kalif Raymond: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)
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