The 7-7 Detroit Lions are a rollercoaster, but entering Week 16 with three games remaining in the 2022 regular season, they’re on the upswing with six wins in their last seven games and a real shot at their first playoff appearance since 2016. Expectations weren’t too high in the Motor City for this season after a 3-13-1 2021 campaign that led them to picking native son and Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson second overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. Now, the Lions understand the chance they have to break into the NFL’s Big Dance. According to SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh, Detroit has a 30.8% chance to reach the postseason. “We have an opportunity, and you just don’t know when these opportunities are always going to be there,” Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell said on Tuesday. “So, we can’t let this slip through our fingers. We can’t get so uptight with that…the stakes go higher and our temperature has to go down, that’s how we have to handle it… A guy like [offensive tackle Taylor] Decker here has been here seven years and been to one playoff. Hey man, you don’t know. We are trending the right way, and I believe we’re going to get better. We’ll be better every year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know what kind of opportunity you have, particularly the young guys. You better hold on to it, grasp it, us coaches, all of us. Let’s make the most of it.” Defensive revival Detroit was an offseason darling thanks to starring on HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Detroit Lions” in the preseason, but their defense was an early-season tire fire, allowing the most points per game (32.1) in the entire league through the first eight weeks. Then, the switch flipped starting in Week 9: The Lions have 12 takeaways in their last seven games, which is tied for the third-most in the NFL in that span and trailing only the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, each with 13. Detroit has a takeaway in 13 straight games this season, the longest such streak in the entire league. As a result, they’ve been a top 10 scoring defense and are winning the turnover battle week in and week out. Lions this seasonW-L1-6 (Last)6-1 (T-3rd)Opp PPG32.1 (Last) 19.9 (8th)Rush YPG Allowed154.9 (30th)112.0 (11th)Turnover Differential -5 (29th)+9 (2nd)”You want a good defense, you have to be able to tackle and you better get takeaways,” Campbell said. “We’re doing those things right now, so that’s a credit to [defensive coordinator] Aaron Glenn and his staff.” One of the things Glenn and the Lions’ defensive coaches have done well this season is help their highly-touted defensive cornerstones begin to capitalize on their potential. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Ohio State, had a rocky rookie year in 2020, a year that wasn’t easy for anyone in any walk of life. In 2022, Okudah has shown some real signs of growth, ranking 18th in the NFL in terms of passing yards per game allowed, 43.2, among 110 players with 400 or more coverage snaps.Hutchinson, the most recent second overall draft pick and Hard Knocks star, has carried over his collegiate production immediately in Year 1, leading all rookies in sacks with seven and quarterback pressures with 41. He’s even snagged a couple interceptions while playing along the line, including a critical one of back-to-back NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers in the Lions’ 15-9 Week 9 win against the Green Bay Packers. Hutchinson is also aided by the development of rookie linebacker James Houston, a sixth round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. His five sacks this season are the second-most among rookies behind only Hutchinson himself. Aidan Hutchinson this seasonSacks7.01stQB Pressures411stInterceptions2T-5thMore points, more funThe Lions have thrived under first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, ranking as a top-five offense in the entire league across the board after ranking in the bottom 10 a year ago under former OC Anthony Lynn. Lions offense past two seasonsPPG 19.1 (25th) 26.4 (5th)Total YPG322.6 (22nd)375.1 (4th)Red Zone TD Pct46.7% (31st)70.6% (3rd)Two of the bigger factors for the offensive success this season are red zone efficiency and quarterback Jared Goff having time to throw. Detroit is third in red zone touchdown percentage, 70.6% as well as red zone touchdowns scored, 35. Only Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs, 40, and Jalen Hurts’ Philadelphia Eagles, 36, have scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Lions running back Jamaal Williams, famous for his dancing ability and impassioned “Hard Knocks” speech, is leading the red zone charge with an NFL-best with 14 rushing scores, needing only three more in the final three games to break Hall of Famer Barry Sanders’ franchise record of 16 rushing touchdowns set in 1991. Thirteen of his 14 rushing touchdowns have been in the red zone, most in the NFL, and 10 of them have been on the goal line, also the most in the NFL. Jared Goff was sacked 35 times in 2021, tied for the 11th-most in the NFL but in 2022, Goff has only been taken down 19 times, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.”It starts up front with them for sure, but it’s a conscious effort from [offensive coordinator] Ben [Johnson] to not put us in bad situations,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said on Tuesday. “For myself as well to make sure I’m getting rid of the ball on time, stepping up in the pocket and making sure I’m where I’m supposed to be. It’s a full team effort, but it most certainly starts up front with those guys doing their job to keep guys away. It allows me to play pretty freely.” Thanks to the improved protection, Goff has the time to run the plays where he operates at his highest level, play-action passes. Goff leads the NFL in play-action passing touchdowns this season with 13, a statistic he led the NFL in with 15 in 2018, the season he made the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams. Jared Goff on play action this seasonPass TD131stPasser Rating118.53rd* Made Super Bowl with Los Angeles Rams when leading NFL in play-action pass TD in 2018The former first overall pick also threw the game-winning 51-yard passing touchdown to tight end Brock Wright using play-action in the Lions’ 20-17 road win in Week 15.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson brought the fun back to the Lions in addition to the points this season as he dialed up that same play but with offensive tackle Penei Sewell lining up out wide and then moving across the formation in motion before Goff hit him for a game-icing first down in Detroit’s 34-23 Week 14 win against the NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings.
“It [the game-winner to Brock Wright] was the same play we ran the week before to [offensive tackle] Penei [Sewell], but it was just different people in different spots,” Goff said. “We’ve done quite a bit of that over the last few weeks, running similar plays with different people in different spots. There’s always wrinkles every week for how we want to do things. We found a bit of our identity, and it’s worked for us.” Goff’s union with Johnson has altered his identity to that of a top-ten quarterback, similar to his level of play during the Rams’ 2018 Super Bowl run, with three games to go in the 2022 regular season. Jared Goff 2018 & 2022 seasonsPass YPG 293.0 (5th)257.4 (9th)TD-INT 32-12 (T-10th)23-7 (5th)Passer Rating101.1 (8th) 97.2 (9th)* Made Super Bowl** Three games remaining this seasonCurrent playoff positionAfter 14 games and 15 weeks of NFL football, the Lions (7-7) are slotted as the ninth seed in the NFC, two spots away from the seventh and final playoff spot. However, Detroit’s 7-7 record is the same as the team occupying the eighth spot, the Seattle Seahawks, but Seattle has the head-to-head tiebreaker because of their thrilling 48-45 win at the Lions in Week 4. Both teams trail the current seventh-seeded, 7-6-1 Washington Commanders by half a game. Washington tied the sixth-seeded New York Giants, 8-5-1, 20-20 in Week 13. NFC wild card race5. Dallas Cowboys*10-44th-hardest6. Giants8-5-13rd-hardest7. Commanders7-6-1T-7th-hardest8. Seahawks7-712th-hardest9. Lions7-7T-2nd-easiest10. Packers6-8T-7th-hardest* Clinched playoff berthRemaining ScheduleThe Lions have three games left in the 2022 regular season, and their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .333, giving them what’s tied for the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, according to Tankathon. After coming away with a thrilling 20-17 road win at the New York Jets last week, the Lions have a physical showdown at the Carolina Panthers, a team that has averaged the 10th-most rushing yards per game (137.9) since firing head coach Matt Rhule and replacing him with defensive coordinator Steve Wilks in Week 7. Following that slugfest, the Lions host the NFC’s worst team, the 3-11 Chicago Bears, in their regular season home finale. Chicago showed tremendous fight in these two teams first matchup back in Week 10, a 31-30 Lions win at the Bears. However, injuries have since beset the Chicago defense, leaving them ripe for a blowout. The last game of the Lions’ regular season slate is a rematch with the Packers at Lambeau Field, a team Detroit defeated 15-9 in Week 9 with Aaron Rodgers tossing three red-zone interceptions. Since Week 10, the Packers offense has become much more explosive, averaging 26.6 points per game, the ninth-most in the NFL. The key development in the Green Bay bounceback has been the awakening of their rookie wide receiver Christian Watson, whose eight touchdowns from scrimmage lead the league since Week 10. Although, there’s a chance the Lions could be facing Jordan Love instead of Rodgers if the Packers are already eliminated from playoff contention by Week 18. Green Bay needs to win back-to-back games at the Miami Dolphins and at home against the Minnesota Vikings, two playoff teams, in order for the Week 18 matchup to carry any weight for the home team.
The only tough part of this stretch for the Lions is that two of these three are on the road. Detroit leads the NFL in scoring offense in home games, 32.1 points per game, but they average 18.7 points per game on the road, the 10th-fewest in the league. Outside of the friendly, domed confines of Ford Field, Goff is a wildly different quarterback. However, he put together a solid performance on the road against the Jets’ top-five scoring defense on the road last week: 252 passing yards, one passing touchdown, and no interceptions on 23-of-38 passing. Jared Goff by location this seasonTeam PPG32.1 (1st)18.7 (23rd)TD-INT20-3 (2nd)3-4 (30th)Passer Rating106.9 (3rd)82.5 (25th)* QB ranks out of 35 qualified passersWhat needs to happenIf Detroit takes care of business and goes 3-0 to close the season, all they need is for the Commanders and Seahawks to each lose one more game. That’s quite likely to occur in Week 16 since the Seahawks play the 11-3 Kansas City Chiefs, and the Commanders play the 10-4 San Francisco 49ers. The Lions don’t actually need much help to become the first team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to make the playoffs after beginning a season with one-or-fewer wins in their first seven games. Making the playoffs after starting 1-6 would also make them the fourth team to reach the postseason after being five games under .500 at any point in a season.5+ games below .500 and eventually made playoffsSince 1970 AFL/NFL Merger2020 Washington2-77-92014 Panthers3-8-17-8-11970 Bengals1-68-6* 2022 Lions: 7-7 after 1-6 start”Look, I showed them where we’re at, they know exactly where we are in the standings, and we know what’s in front of us, it all starts with this one [Week 16 at the Panthers],” Campbell said. “This team [Carolina] has an identity, they’re going to try to bully us. We have to be able to absorb it and answer back. However, if Detroit slips up once and goes 2-1 to conclude the season, they would need both Seattle and Washington to lose two of their final three. The Lions are essentially in a win-and-in playoff situation, giving them a yellow-brick road to waltz back to the postseason for the first time since 2016. All they have to do is just keep winning.