The Detroit Lions we’re used to would have folded on Thursday night. To be more precise, the old Lions would not have been competitive in the first place. They wouldn’t even have been asked to start the season against the defending champion, but that’s another story.
The Lions trailed in the second half of the NFL’s season-opening game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Detroit’s offense stalled. On the other hand, Patrick Mahomes once again played as the best player in the world even without Travis Kelce. And it would have been fair for the Lions to have gone, cut their losses and looked forward to easier competition.
But these are not the lions we are used to. The team that hasn’t won a division title since 1993 got some key defensive plays, finally got the offense going with the run game on a clutch in the fourth quarter, and secured the Chiefs’ first upset of the 2023 season with 21 to beat. 20. They watched the Chiefs make critical mistakes along the way, the kind of mistakes the Lions usually make.
The Chiefs were without Kelce, who is injured, and defensive lineman Chris Jones, who is holding up. It’s hard to win in the NFL without two of your top three players, and there’s no shame in losing the Chiefs on Thursday night.
The opening game might have said a lot more about where the Lions are headed. One game into the season, the Lions have already made a big statement.
Leos get back in with big game
The Lions played a pretty good first half. A gutsy fake punt call from their own 17-yard line led to a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Detroit moved the ball fine and got 188 yards before halftime. But Marvin Jones Jr. groped in the field target range. The Lions couldn’t hold back Mahomes during a two-minute drill late in the half. Kansas City scored in the final minute and a fairly good half for the Lions turned into a 14–7 deficit, with the Chiefs getting the ball first to begin the second half.
It looked like the Chiefs would take control of the game early in the second half. Then Kadarius helped Toney Detroit.
Toney dropped a pass over the middle that hit him right in the hands as he walked. The ball bounced straight to Lions rookie defenseman Brian Branch, who made a nice catch and took off for a 50-yard touchdown. The game was suddenly tied.
A huge crowd tuned in for the first game of the NFL regular season, between the defending champions and a fun newcomer. Branch’s big game turned it into a competitive game. Anyone who considers the history of the Lions and Chiefs and expects a blowout in Kansas City hasn’t paid enough attention to what Lions coach Dan Campbell has built.
Leos take the lead late
The Lions were back in the game after Branch’s interception return touchdown, but they were unable to take advantage. Detroit’s first three drives of the second half ended in punts. The Lions defense did their best and held the Chiefs to field goals, but the offense couldn’t get much going. The Lions held the Chiefs to a field goal after Mahomes slipped a little too fast on a run, creating a second-and-1. Detroit did not allow a first down after Mahomes came up short for the first down. Harrison Butker’s second field goal of the game gave the Chiefs a 20–14 lead early in the second half.
The Lions needed a big drive at the time. At that point they remembered that they had a fantastic offensive line and some good running backs. Detroit effectively started running it. Jared Goff hit some big passes. They went on a nine-play, 75-yard drive. David Montgomery capped it off with an eight-yard touchdown run. The extra point gave the Lions a 21-20 lead.
Then the Lions defense made another big play. Within the six minutes left in the game, the Chiefs attempted a tricky jet sweep to Rashee Rice on a straight snap to tight end Blake Bell in third and first. Lion’s defensive end Josh Paschal wrecked the game and brought down Rice for a three-yard loss. The Chiefs punted and it became a real possibility that the Lions were about to get upset.
The Chiefs defense made its own big play. The Lions had a fourth and two just past midfield and went for it, hoping to finish the game. Safety Justin Reid knocked down a Goff pass and the Chiefs took over on their own 45 with 2:30 left. That’s usually when Mahomes wins the game.
The Chiefs screwed up after that. Toney had a huge drop after a pass into the field. New left tackle Donovan Smith got a hold call that landed a long catch from Skyy Moore. Moore had a pass in his hands that fell incomplete to second. After an incomplete third down, the Chiefs went for it in fourth and twentieth. After a false start penalty, they decided to go for it on fourth-and-25. Those are great opportunities even for Mahomes, and a desperation stride was swept away. Montgomery put the game away by scoring a first down on a third-down run. After this the game was over. As the Lions got down on their knees to kill the clock, Arrowhead Stadium was met with an audible cheer from Lions fans making the trip.
The Lions had not won a season-opening game since 2017. Most years their season was practically over before it started. Fans were just hoping for a good performance on Thanksgiving. The off-season hype for Detroit was heavy after a good finish to last season.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Lions may be worthy of optimism.