5 Lions games to watch on NFL schedule release day: Matthew Stafford reunion looms large

Detroit Free Press

The opponents have been known for months, and in some cases years. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, we finally get to put a time and date on the games.

Every team plays 17 games this fall as part of an expanded regular season. NFC teams have nine road games, while AFC teams have nine at home. And the league has modified its flex format to ensure better primetime matchups late in the season.

The Detroit Lions, coming off a 5-11 season and with no star skill players on their roster, likely will have limited national television appearances (outside of their normal Thanksgiving affair), but there still are some interesting games on their schedule.

Here are the five games I’m most looking forward to seeing this fall:

5. Baltimore Ravens at Lions

When the Lions hosted Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs two years ago, it was a must-see game. Mahomes was coming off an MVP season and, given the league’s scheduling formula, was likely to be making his only appearance at Ford Field until the 2027 season.

Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes pressures Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson during an NFL divisional playoff game Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Well, same goes for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The NFL’s scheduling formula has been tweaked to make it possible that Jackson comes to Detroit again before 2029, but this could very well be the only game he plays at Ford Field. Ever.

Jackson is not quite on the same level as Mahomes, who will go down as an all-time great. Still, he’s an electric player who can do things few in the NFL can match. I don’t expect much from the Lions this season, but this is one game worth watching.

4. Cincinnati Bengals at Lions

The Bengals? On a must-watch list? Yes, and it has everything to do with the draft.

With quarterback Joe Burrow coming off a torn ACL, the Bengals were the other team widely believed to be considering drafting Penei Sewell with a top-seven pick. Cincinnati ultimately took LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5, which left Sewell there for the Lions at No. 7.

Will Sewell be extra motivated playing against the team that passed on him? How will the Bengals’ line, with ex-Lion Riley Reiff playing a key role, hold up in Sewell’s absence? Will Chase be the rare top-five receiver who makes good on his potential? Will any of it matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, since it will be years before we know whether Cincinnati made the right pick. But it will make for a fun debate this fall, nonetheless.

3. Lions vs. Chicago Bears

Put their feisty NFC North rivalry aside, Lions-Bears makes this list for the same reason Lions-Bengals did: The draft.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields rushes during the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Jan. 1, 2021.

The Lions, of course, passed on Justin Fields at No. 7, and the Bears traded up to take the Ohio State quarterback four picks later. Because they’re in the same division, and because the Lions have such an obvious long-term need at the position, Fields and Sewell will be compared to one another forever more.

Fields could be in for some early growing pains, and Andy Dalton may open the season as the Bears’ starting quarterback, so the second Lions-Bears meeting is the one I’ll be most excited for when the schedule comes out — just don’t make it the Thanksgiving game for the third straight year.

2. Lions vs. Green Bay Packers

Two of the Lions’ three NFC North foes make this list, and for entirely different reasons.

The Packers, if Aaron Rodgers returns, are the best team on the Lions’ schedule, a potential Super Bowl contender and one of the four best teams in football. Rodgers is coming off an MVP season, and based on the discourse of the past few months, could be playing his last season in Green Bay.

Hate him all you want, but he’s a special player and this may be your last chance to see him at Ford Field.

(Alternate game-to-watch: Lions at Denver Broncos)

If the Packers acquiesce and trade Rodgers, the Broncos are reportedly his preferred favored landing spot. I’m not sure why, as Denver isn’t exactly built to win now and having to face Mahomes and Justin Herbert twice a year seems like an unnecessary situation to willingly walk into. But if Rodgers lands in Denver, this otherwise bland matchup becomes must-see TV.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff greets Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford after the Rams' 30-16 win Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Detroit.

1. Lions at Los Angeles Rams

There is absolutely no debating the best game on the Lions’ schedule this fall. Matthew Stafford went to ownership and asked for a trade in January. Weeks later, the Lions granted his wish when new general manager Brad Holmes struck a deal with his old team to send Stafford to L.A. for Jared Goff and three draft picks.

Stafford was a very good player for most of his time in Detroit, but for all statistical prowess he made the playoffs just three times in 12 seasons and never won a playoff game. He’s surrounded by a better cast in L.A. and expected to do big things with the Rams. This season will be a referendum, in some ways, on the longstanding debate about how big a part of the problem Stafford was in Detroit.

I imagine this game will be emotional for Stafford, and probably for some Lions fans. If the schedule-makers are smart, they’ll put this game near the beginning of the season in a prime viewing window — a 4:25 p.m. national game? — to ensure maximum eyeballs and get the Stafford vs. his old team storylines they want.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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