Niyo: Kings of the North? Lions look like heirs to the throne

Detroit News

Dan Campbell wasn’t coaching on the sidelines during the NFL’s wild-card weekend.

Instead, he was coaching from his couch. And as a guest on ESPN’s simulcast of the Dallas-Tampa Bay playoff dud Monday night, the Lions’ head coach admitted to the hosts, Peyton and Eli Manning, just how “frustrating” it is to sit and watch the postseason.

“But, if anything, it motivates you, is what it does,” he said. “That’s why I like watching these games. It just fuels your fire, you know?”

After watching the opening round of this year’s playoffs, here’s what should have the Lions — and their fans — really stoked, though. As much as Campbell’s team felt like it belonged in this year’s playoff picture, the Lions absolutely know what’s there for the taking next season.

Barring some dramatic changes this offseason, they should be the favorites to win the NFC North for the first time in, well, forever, considering the division was still called the NFC Central the last time the Lions claimed a crown 30 years ago.

But, it’s hardly a reach to say that now, particularly after watching the reigning NFC North champs flop on their home field Sunday against the New York Giants.  The Vikings are what we thought they were, to quote the late Dennis Green, and that’s a fraudulent 13-win team that ended the regular season with a negative point differential and the sixth-worst efficiency rating (DVOA) in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. That they lost Sunday’s game to the Giants, 31-24, only seemed fitting, too, considering Kevin O’Connell’s team had defied logic and set an NFL record by going 11-0 in one-score games this season.

The honeymoon for the rookie tandem of Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell ended as soon as that playoff loss was complete, and now they’re tasked with retooling an aging roster and a cringeworthy cap sheet. O’Connell probably needs to find a new coordinator to replace Ed Donatell, whose defense ranked 30th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. And beyond the Kirk Cousins question — he’ll carry a $36.3 million cap figure in 2023 — there are big contract extensions looming for Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson and Danielle Hunter. It also may be time for Minnesota to move on from key veterans like Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith.

Meanwhile, in Green Bay, where the Packers have dominated the division for most of the past three decades — a run that coincides with 31 consecutive years of having either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers under center — they’re once again waiting on Rodgers to decide his fate, and theirs.

The four-time MVP is coming off his worst season statistically since he became a full-time starter in 2008, posting a career-low passer rating (91.1) while throwing just 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. And after holding Green Bay hostage the last two offseasons — culminating in last year’s record-setting three-year, $150 million contract extension — Rodgers again has signaled he’s contemplating retirement. Or perhaps his trade options, considering he holds all the cards with nearly $60 million in guaranteed money due to him in 2023. If he wants to play elsewhere (Vegas, anyone?) and the Packers are ready to see what Jordan Love can do, maybe this is finally the year.

In Chicago, it’s a different story altogether. The Bears own the No. 1 overall pick in the draft after finishing the season 3-14, with a 10-game losing streak. Questions remain about their young franchise quarterback, Justin Fields, and GM Ryan Poles knows he needs to overhaul both the offensive and defensive lines, among other pressing needs. (Fields desperately needs a No. 1 receiver to help him spread his wings as a passer.) And while the Bears head into the offseason with the most cap space in the NFL by far — almost $60 million more than any other team — they’re at least a year behind the Lions’ rebuild.

That brings us back to the Motor City, then, and this notion that 2022 was “just the beginning,” as Campbell told his players in the locker room following that season-ending win at Lambeau Field. And that moving forward in the NFC North, as he put it, “all roads go through Detroit.”

There’s ample evidence to support that claim, and not simply because the Lions went 5-1 against the rest of the division this season, with the lone blemish a 28-24 loss to the Vikings in September that Campbell blamed on his own late-game strategy.

Despite fielding the league’s second-youngest roster — eight first- or second-year pros started eight or more games — Detroit also won eight of its last 10 games overall, to finish as one of the NFL’s hottest teams. One of the most efficient, too, as the Lions ranked ninth in DVOA this season, and sixth in the weighted DVOA metric that reflects how teams played at the end of the year.

Continuing the rebuild

General manager Brad Holmes has an opportunity to add plenty more young talent this offseason, with a likely emphasis on defense, where Detroit still ranked among the league’s worst in 2022. There’s enough cap space to operate in free agency — expect Holmes to clear more with some veteran cuts (including Michael Brockers) — and plenty of draft capital again this spring. Detroit owns two of the top 20 picks in this year’s draft (Nos. 6 and 18) and four of the top 60, thanks to the trades of Matthew Stafford and Hockenson.

History may not be on their side, as we all know. Since the Lions’ last won a division title in 1993, the Packers have won 15 of them, while the Vikings have claimed eight and the Bears five. (Even Tampa Bay has won the division more recently than Detroit, even though the old NFC Central ceased to exist a year after Matt Millen took control of the Lions.) And amid all the optimism that surrounded his team’s late-season playoff push, Campbell was quick to remind everyone that talk is cheap and hype is worthless.

Still, the promise is there.

“I do think it can catapult you, if you allow it to,” Campbell said. “But, if we just say the words and don’t put in the work that we did last year with the growth that has taken place, then we’ll be average.”

But clearly, both he and Holmes are confident this team will put in the work. And it’s not hard to understand why when you listen to some of the young leaders that have emerged on this roster. A day after this season ended, guys like Amon-Ra St. Brown, who is coming off his first 100-catch season, and Penei Sewell, who already looks like a perennial Pro Bowler at right tackle, were busy talking about a new standard that has been set.

“I think going into next year, whether it’s guys that are getting drafted here or … a free agent that we sign, they’re coming here knowing we want to make the playoffs,” St. Brown said. “That’s our goal. But, we want more than playoffs. We want home-field advantage. And I think that’s the biggest thing, is guys that are going to be new to this team are gonna understand that this isn’t the old Detroit Lions. This is a new team, a new culture that we’re bringing to this team. And they’re gonna have to come with that same energy.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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