NFL schedule makers: ‘You play your way into prime time,’ Detroit Lions have done that

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions went from having no scheduled prime-time games a season ago to playing in one of the NFL’s most important television windows this year, and one of the men responsible for putting the schedule together said the team earned its newfound place near the top of the league’s TV pecking order.

“We always talk about you play your way into prime time, you play your way into the bigger television windows and the Lions have done that,” NFL vice president of broadcast planning Mike North said in a video conference Friday. “Maybe it started a little bit in August with ‘Hard Knocks’ and everybody getting to know Coach Campbell and learning what a kneecap biter might be someday, but they earned it with their play on the field.”

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The Lions, with easy-to-root-for head coach Dan Campbell, were featured on one of the most-watched seasons ever of the HBO docuseries “Hard Knocks” last summer, then had a memorable finish to the season, winning eight of their final 10 games, including the finale at Lambeau Field.

The Lions finished 9-8 overall and narrowly missed the playoffs, but with a young, balanced roster, they’ll enter this fall as the favorite to win their first division title since 1993.

The Lions currently have four prime-time games on their schedule. They open the season against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the league’s Thursday night kickoff game, play the Green Bay Packers in another Thursday night game in Week 4, host the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football in Week 8, and play the Dallas Cowboys in a Saturday night game in late December.

They also host the Packers in their annual nationally-televised Thanksgiving game.

Onnie Bose, the NFL’s vice president of broadcasting, said the Lions were an attractive scheduling option this year because of both their on-field improvements and the likelihood they will be in a competitive division race late in the season.

The Packers, with new quarterback Jordan Love, and the Minnesota Vikings, last year’s division winners, both have five prime-time games this fall, while the Chicago Bears, coming off an NFL-worst 3-14 season, have four.

“For a lot of years, the Lions were in that early slot on Thanksgiving and maybe not that much more,” Bose said. “The ability to play those games and everything that we saw on the field, but also a competitive (NFC) North — I think we look at that as a division where probably every team potentially could compete for that division championship and every one of those division games is going to be meaningful, and those are games that we’re going to put in important parts of the schedule throughout.”

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North said the league decided to pit the Lions against the Chiefs in its coveted kickoff window after considering literally every home opponent on the defending champs’ appealing schedule.

The NFL wanted to save Kansas City’s games against the Buffalo Bills (Week 14) and Cincinnati Bengals (Week 17) for late in the season because of the potential playoff implications. Both games will air in a national Sunday afternoon window on CBS, historically the home for AFC games.

A Super Bowl rematch between the Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles was set for Monday night in mid-November. The Chiefs’ home game against the Miami Dolphins will be played in Germany. And North said the league considered all three NFC North opponents before ultimately deciding between the Lions and Bears in the opener.

“None of us would have been disappointed if there was another quarter or two in the Super Bowl, so we absolutely looked at a continuation of the Super Bowl for kickoff,” North said. “We looked at Cincinnati and Buffalo. Obviously, those are two of the biggest competitors for Kansas City in that conference. Ended up saving those for a little bit later in the year. … Hopefully the conference title is coming down the stretch in December, saving those games for there. We looked at all the division options. There’s a fantastic quarterback in L.A., there’s a new quarterback in Las Vegas, there’s a new coach in Denver. Any one of those would have made good options.

“But we got really intrigued, honestly, by the two NFC North opponents as possibilities. Chicago’s record, usually a three-win team doesn’t warrant such a big platform, but Detroit’s record down the stretch, (winning) eight of the last 10 and the last time we all saw them they were going into Lambeau and ruining the Packers season (was appealing).”

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Lions coach Dan Campbell, in a segment Friday on “Good Morning Football,” said he, his staff and players are excited for the chance to see how they stack up against “the heavyweight champ” in a game that will be a measuring stick for the season.

“I would say that certainly we’re beginning to get noticed, that’s what it means,” Campbell said. “Now I’ll say this, here’s my first thought, if I’m being totally honest with you as to why they would — OK, why give us Kansas City? Well, yeah, you finished the year a certain way, but it also means that they’re betting on we won’t get our ass kicked. You may get beat, but you’re not going to get your ass kicked. That’s what they’re saying.”

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

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