The NFL season is finally here. Lions fans are about to find out how a new head coach, free agent signings, and draft picks have shaped the 2018 Detroit Lions for the upcoming season. The preseason is by no means an indication of how well or poorly the Lions will perform this season, so Monday night is our first real look at the team.
If there’s one thing we know from Matt Patricia’s time in New England as a defensive coordinator, it’s that every week will bring a custom game plan on defense. That should hopefully keep opponents on their toes a bit. The Lions gave all indications that they plan to vastly improve their run game this season. Between the drafting of G/C Frank Ragnow in the first round, followed by trading up to draft Kerryon Johnson in the second, the Lions tipped their hand. It appears they plan to follow the Patriots model on offense: keep defenses honest by having an effective run game at any and all times, even if the preferred option is to have your star QB air the ball out.
Only time will reveal how the season will actually unfold, but that’s not going to stop me from pulling out my crystal ball and giving you a preview of what the 2018 season has in store for the Lions.
Comeback Player of the Year: Taylor Decker
Taylor Decker is going to be the biggest difference maker for the Lions of those who missed big chunks of last season. Decker was sidelined the first eight games of the 2017 season, and didn’t play well until the last four games of the season. Expect him to lock down the left tackle position in 2018, just as he did during his 2016 rookie campaign. Kerry Hyder gets an honorable mention.
Best Performing Draft Pick: Frank Ragnow
The Lions are going to have a different feel to their running game in 2018, and a big part of it is the solidity that Frank Ragnow will bring to the offensive line. Not only will Matthew Stafford have more time in the pocket, but the running game will be a legit threat that defenses need to account for.
Best Free Agent Signing: LeGarrette Blount
You can’t deny the good mojo that comes from signing a back-to-back Super Bowl champion (with two different teams, by the way). Kerryon Johnson may very well end up being the best overall running back this season, but close your eyes and imagine Blount grinding out the last four minutes with the Lions ahead by a few points. Nice image, eh?
Offensive MVP: Matthew Stafford
This is an easy one. With a high performing offensive line and a viable run game, we’re going to see an even better Matthew Stafford than we ever have. It’s tough to play quarterback in the NFL, and it’s even tougher if the defense knows the quarterback has no running game to fall back on. Stafford’s past three seasons have all produced 65+ completion percentages, +14 TD-to-INT ratios, and 93+ quarterback ratings. Those might not be the best stats in the NFL, but they’re solid considering the defense was able to exclusively focus on defending the passing game.
Defensive MVP: Darius Slay
Slay was the Lions best defender last year, and that will remain the case in 2018. I expect Matt Patricia to let Slay lock down one side of the field, allowing the rest of the offense to be covered in multiple ways by the remainder of the Lions defense.
Best Position Group: Offensive Line
With the addition of Ragnow, a fully healthy Decker, and the rest of the line recovered from their various 2017 injuries, this unit should finally live up to the hype that started prior to the 2017 season.
Week 1: New York Jets
Key to the game: Rattle the rookie QB – In Sam Darnold’s first NFL start, the Lions would be wise to never let him feel comfortable in the pocket and to shut him down on his first few drives or create turnovers.
Result: Lions win comfortably.
Week 2: @ San Francisco 49ers
Key to the game: Detroit’s defensive front seven – Kyle Shanahan has historically produced a good running game. If the Lions revamped Front Seven can stop the duo of Alfred Morris and Matt Breida, the Lions will win this game.
Result: Lions win a nail-biter.
Week 3: New England Patriots
Key to the game: The Lions passing game – I don’t see the Lions having too much success on the ground in this one, so if Stafford and the wide receivers can connect throughout the game, the Lions should be in good shape to squeak out a victory.
Result: Lions win a tight one as Patricia bests his mentor Bill Belichick.
Week 4: @ Dallas Cowboys
Key to the game: Defending Dak Prescott – The Lions will have a tough time containing Ezekiel Elliott, but if they keep Prescott in the pocket and limit his big plays, they should come out on top.
Result: Lions win a one-score game.
Week 5: Green Bay Packers
Key to the game: The Lions entire offense – In 2017, the Lions scored 65 total points in their two meetings with the Pack. They will probably need to match or even increase that in 2018 now that Aaron Rodgers is back. This is one of those games where I see LeGarrette Blount grinding out the last few minutes to seal a victory.
Result: Lions win by 3 or 4 points.
Week 6: Bye Week
Week 7: @ Miami Dolphins
Key to the game: Lions running game – The Dolphins have a solid linebacking corps, but their defensive line will be on the downswing after the departure of Ndamukong Suh. If it hasn’t happened yet, this should be the game where a Lions running back gains 100 yards on the ground for the first time since the 2013 season.
Result: Lions win a one-score game.
Week 8: Seattle Seahawks
Key to the game: Defending Russell Wilson – These aren’t the Seahawks you’re looking for…. Unlike QB Dak Prescott has with Ezekiel Elliott, Russell Wilson doesn’t have a dominant running game to balance the offense. Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny may form a pretty solid running back duo by the time Week 8 rolls around, but Wilson will still be the key to the Seahawks success this year.
Result: The Lions win a close one and move to 7-0 (!!!), with the crowd being a big factor.
Week 9: @ Minnesota Vikings
Key to the game: Lions special teams – The Vikings have a better offense and a better defense than the Lions, so I don’t see how they can beat Minnesota on the road without a couple huge plays on special teams.
Result: Lions lose big.
Week 10: @ Chicago Bears
Key to the game: The Lions offensive line – With the additions of Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith, plus Eddie Goldman and Danny Trevathan, the Bears front seven will be a force this season. The Lions O-Line will need to come up with some creative ways to keep Matthew Stafford upright and the running game moving.
Result: Lions lose by a score.
Week 11: Carolina Panthers
Key to the game: Defending Cam Newton – The Panthers offense runs through Cam Newton. He can hand it off, run it himself, or throw the ball. The triple threat of Cam Newton will be too much for the Lions defense.
Result: Lions lose by a score.
Week 12: Chicago Bears
Key to the game: Blocking – I think the Lions will have learned something from their first matchup against the Bears, and will use the O-Line, tight ends, running backs, and maybe even a few designed roll outs to give Stafford clean throwing lanes. Having this second go-around at home doesn’t hurt.
Result: Lions win by a field goal.
Week 13: Los Angeles Rams
Key to the game: Turnovers – The Rams are going to be a force this season, even moreso than the Vikings. The Rams may end up in the NFC Championship game. The only way I see the Lions winning this game is if they turn Jared Goff over two or three times.
Result: Lions lose big.
Week 14: @ Arizona Cardinals
Key to the game: Bottling up David Johnson – Josh Rosen should be the starting QB for Arizona by this point in the season, so the biggest offensive threat will be David Johnson. The Lions defensive backfield should be able to cause Rosen enough problems that Johnson will be the preferred offensive outlet. If they can keep him to under 125 total yards, the Lions will have a great chance at winning this game.
Result: After going 1-4 in their last 5 games, the Lions grab a road victory by a touchdown.
Week 15: @ Buffalo Bills
Key to the game: The weather – December in Buffalo can bring blustery conditions, and make teams with a wide margin in talent look equal. The Bills should be struggling and starting Josh Allen by this time, so the only way I see the Bills being competitive is if Shady McCoy can carry a huge load during a potentially weather-altered game.
Result: Lions win big, bringing their record up to 10-4.
Week 16: Minnesota Vikings
Key to the game: NFL standings – The Vikings might have a playoff spot locked up by this point, or even the division and home field advantage secured as well. If that’s the case, the Lions could sneak away with a victory. Should the Vikings have anything to play for, the Lions will need to win the turnover margin by 3 or 4.
Result: Lions lose by a field goal.
Week 17: @ Green Bay Packers
Key to the game: Defending Aaron Rodgers – The Packers should be fighting for a playoff berth, and Aaron Rodgers has risen to the occasion more times than not throughout his career. Even if the Lions need a win to get a better playoff seed, I think a determined Rodgers at Lambeau Field will be too much to handle.
Result: Lions lose by a touchdown.
If you’ve been keeping track, I’ve got the Lions starting out on fire, going 7-0 to begin the season. From there I think they fizzle out a little bit and go 3-6 down the stretch. They’ll make it into the playoffs as the final wild card.
With the Lions being the 6th seed in the NFC, that means they’ll play on the road against the 3rd seed. I think the Saints, Rams, and Vikings will all finish 13-3, but NFL tiebreakers will give the Saints and Rams the top two seeds. That means the Lions will play the Vikings for the third time. Even with the old adage that “it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season”, I think the Vikings yet again edge the Lions by a touchdown – ending the 2018 season for the Lions.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it after the hot start, a playoff berth in a tough NFC will be a solid first year for Matt Patricia. Moving forward, however, the Lions need to make progress toward division titles, playoff victories, home playoff games, and eventually a trip to the Super Bowl.