It’s officially different. For how long and how far, we’ll see. But for now, the Lions are doing things they’ve rarely done, and doing them in ways we’ve rarely seen.
Thanksgiving is coming, and unlike many years, the Lions aren’t cooked. Not even stuffed. They won their third straight, second straight on the road, and did it in punishing fashion. They hammered the New York Giants 31-18 Sunday, looking composed and confident, almost as if they’re getting used to it.
These are the complementary ingredients the Lions long have sought, and are starting to find in Dan Campbell’s second season. Sharp, efficient quarterback play from Jared Goff. Timely turnovers by an opportunistic defense, led by Aidan Hutchinson and Kerby Joseph. A dependable ground attack, led by Jamaal Williams’ three touchdowns. A smart game plan with creativity and physicality. Stuff like that leads to stuff like this, and yeah, I’ll go ahead and say it: Playoff talk.
OK, it’s a whisper right now, with the Lions at 4-6 and still two games out of the wild card. But this wasn’t fluky. If anything, the Giants (7-3) looked like the fluke, having escaped all season with tight victories. The Lions took charge and didn’t loosen their grip, grabbing a 17-6 halftime lead and methodically putting it away.
And now, that Thanksgiving clash against Buffalo that seemed overly daunting? The Bills (7-3) got comfy in Ford Field, beating the Browns there Sunday because of the snowstorm in Buffalo, but the Lions look capable of making them a little uncomfortable.
“I was proud of our guys, proud of our coaches, the game plan they developed,” Campbell said. “Everything we said we needed to do to beat this team, we did that really for almost all of the game. These guys are playing their asses off and they’re starting to figure out a way to win.”
Taking, instead of giving
They’re also figuring out they like their chances better when it’s the other team that turns the ball over, commits penalties and misses kicks. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had thrown two interceptions all season and the Lions plucked two, each by a rookie — Hutchinson and Joseph. Hutchinson also recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter to set up the clinching drive. In their winning streak, the Lions have seven takeaways, and they haven’t been gifts.
A month ago, the Lions hit bottom at 1-6, which led to roster and staff upheaval, and then the oddest thing happened. Campbell and his young team kept it together. So did defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who was embattled and battled back. This is the only way Campbell’s grind-and-grit mentality can take root and grow, with positive reinforcement. Now with the team’s first three-game winning streak since 2017, you can visualize something forming, especially on the youthful defense.
It’s far from complete, and in the NFL, it requires weekly affirmation. But at least the foundation is visible, notably in the trenches. The offensive line led the way and Williams followed, along with Justin Jackson. The Lions had fewer penalties than the Giants, didn’t commit a turnover and didn’t allow a sack. The stout offensive line helped control the clock and then run it out, as the Lions outrushed the Giants, 160-89.
On the other side, the Lions held Saquon Barkley, the NFL’s leading rusher, to 22 yards on 15 carries and had Jones constantly on the run. Hutchinson continued to rise like a No. 2 overall pick should. He showed his versatility by backpedaling into coverage and grabbing an interception in the second quarter, his second of the season. Later, he recovered a fumble at the Giants’ 33 – after a hard hit by Will Harris on receiver Isaiah Hodgins — to set up the clinching drive, and Jackson’s 27-yard run to the 2 set up the touchdown with 6:10 left. D’Andre Swift easily glided 4 yards through a gaping hole and the Lions closed out a game with nary a misstep.
“We’re just trying to make some motion, make those waves move,” said Williams, the always-effervescent running back. “I’m happy and proud. We’re trying our best to get things moving in the right direction.”
Williams is one of the main guys pulling in the right direction. He’s the dancing soul of the Lions, and his joyful demeanor belies how hard he runs. He finished with 64 yards of rough, cold sledding, and now leads the league with 12 rushing touchdowns. As Swift has struggled through injuries, Williams has risen.
“His production speaks for itself, and everything you see and know about him is exactly who he is,” Campbell said. “He’s emotion, he’s heart and he’s just a steady, productive, hard-running, hard-working, smart football player. If you listed your most dependable, consistent players, he would definitely be at the top of that list.”
Feeling the draft
GM Brad Holmes has been fairly proficient drafting and developing playmakers, in addition to fortifying the trenches. His rookie class has been impactful, and third-rounder Joseph has been a revelation with three interceptions. Hutchinson is far outplaying all the other touted defensive line prospects. Alim McNeill, a third-rounder last year, was explosive Sunday with a sack and three tackles for loss. And of course, 2021 fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown keeps excelling, with seven catches for 76 yards.
Again, let’s be careful. This is a three-game snapshot out of 27 in the Holmes-Campbell regime. But the improvement looks real because the young talent looks real. And if you want to feel even more hopeful, consider Matthew Stafford and the Rams just fell to 3-7, making their first-round pick even more valuable to the Lions.
As for the fanciful notion of the playoffs, well, it’s kind of crazy. And kind of not.
The NFC is ridiculously wide open, although the Vikings have a stranglehold on the NFC North. But the Lions could crawl into the wildcard mix with a bunch of four- and five-loss teams like Washington, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, and their schedule isn’t formidable. Obviously, Buffalo is menacing. Then come home games against Jacksonville and Minnesota, and road games against the Jets and Carolina. The final two contests could feature the Bears and Packers playing out the string.
Would you really be surprised by anything at this stage? When you get stellar offensive and defensive line play, you get complete victories. And not to titillate you farther, rookie receiver Jameson Williams could start practicing in the next week or two.
To keep it together, the Lions have to keep putting it together, and that mostly means avoiding turnovers and forcing them. It’s strange to see consecutive road victories, and it’ll be strange to view the Thanksgiving Day game with playoff implications for the home team. If we’re getting ahead of ourselves, we have an excuse. We haven’t seen anything like this in a while, a sudden stirring that actually could be the start of something different.