Once, there were two young quarterbacks who had been college football superstars and were expected to become superstars in the NFL. Then, one surged forward toward success, and the other couldn't seem to get his feet off the ground.
While the Detroit Lions certainly haven't established themselves as one of the top teams to beat in the NFL, they got closer to doing so last year, when Stafford and Calvin Johnson headlined one of the top-five offenses in the league.
The St. Louis Rams, meanwhile, are hoping this is the season they turn things around after eight straight seasons of finishing .500 or worse.
Here's where and when you can watch these two teams open the season.
Where: Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
When: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL.com
Betting Line (via Bovada): Rams +7.5
What's At Stake?
For the Lions, getting that first win at home over a weak opponent that's been awful for the last eight years is absolutely essential. To lose this game would immediately be a blow to the Lions' 2012 aspirations of making the playoffs for a second straight year.
For a long time, the Lions were right where the Rams are now: 10 straight seasons of losing records, that disastrous 0-16 season in 2008, no discernible hope for the future. But last season, something clicked. Stafford finally lived up to expectations, and he and Johnson were able to do something special together.
Last year, the Lions bowed out in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. This season, the goal is to improve upon that, and it all starts with a win over a team they should beat on Sunday.
The Rams, meanwhile, are hoping that they can do in 2012 what the Lions did in 2011. Perhaps this is the season Bradford finally explodes. But it's going to be hard: The Rams ranked in the bottom half of the league in total offense and total defense in 2011. They have a long way up.
Key Injuries: Rams (via CBS Sports)
- Defensive lineman Michael Brockers (ankle) is doubtful for Sunday's game.
- Wide receiver Austin Pettis (suspension) can return for Week 3's matchup at the Bears.
Key Injuries: Lions (via CBS Sports)
- Running back Kevin Smith (ankle) is probable for Sunday's regular-season opener.
- Defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch (knee) is questionable for Sunday's game.
- Running back Jerome Harrison (illness) is out for the season.
- Running back Mikel Leshoure (suspension) can return for Week 3's matchup against Tennessee.
- Defensive back Louis Delmas (knee) is questionable for Sunday's opener.
Fantasy Prospect to Watch: WR Calvin Johnson
He is, after all, the top receiver on any fantasy board and, according to ESPN.com, his ADP was 7.6. Last season, he had 100-plus yards eight times, surpassing the 200-yard mark twice. Johnson is Stafford's No. 1 target and, in 2012, he is once again expected to lead the Lions in targets per game.
There's also the fact that the Lions backfield is beaten up at the moment, meaning more touches for the wideouts—particularly Megatron, who accumulated 16 touchdowns in 2011.
Many are predicting that Johnson and Stafford will put up the most points in Week 1, so those lucky enough to have the electrifying wide receiver on their roster can expect to be happy by week's end.
What They're Saying
The Lions offense is ready to roll, but one big concern with this team remains the defense—particularly the secondary.
In 2011, Detroit finished with the 22nd-ranked pass defense in the league and, according to MLive.com's Anwar S. Richardson, it hasn't gotten any better. That isn't a good sign for a team that desperately needed to upgrade in the offseason, and whose success—in Richardson's opinion—comes down to this unit.
As of today, nobody can say with certainty that Detroit's secondary has improved. Detroit safety Louis Delmas (knee) and cornerback Chris Houston (ankle) are still recovering from their injuries. The Lions will start Bill Bentley, a rookie, at cornerback. It appears newly acquired cornerback Drayton Florence could start against St. Louis if Houston is unable to play.
Meanwhile, the Rams history may be resoundingly ugly, but somehow, this team and their fans have found a way to be optimistic heading into the season opener.
One big positive for the Rams is the fact that there have been a plethora of "one-season turnarounds" in the history of this league, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Bryan Burwell.
Since the 1999 season, we’ve witnessed six of the 13 biggest one-season turnarounds in NFL history, from the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers’ nine-game turnaround that turned them into 15-1 Super Bowl champions to the Indianapolis Colts rising from the ashes of a 3-13 mess in 1998 to 13-3 a year later. The evidence is all around us that miracles can happen.
This year is as good a bet as any to be the year the Rams become the NFL's latest miracle.
Detroit Key Player
As Richardson pointed out, the Lions defense isn't the strongest in the NFL, and they'll turn to a rookie cornerback to help them turn things around in 2012.
Bill Bentley was Detroit's third-round draft pick in 2012 and, according to the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett, he's been so impressive in the preseason that it's not hard to see why the Lions seemed so enamored with him.
Objectively, Bentley appears to have everything it takes to be a star defensive back: Birkett writes that he has the instincts and the confidence to be a star.
Sometimes, it takes a little while for defensive backs to get their footing in the NFL and become stars, but the Lions can't really afford to wait long. A big play from Bentley in Week 1 would go a long way to restoring this unit's confidence.
St. Louis Key Player
Now that the Rams are without Brandon Lloyd, even more of the offensive pressure will fall onto Steven Jackson's shoulders. Last season, the running back was St. Louis' biggest offensive star, rushing for 1,145 yards and five touchdowns with six rushes of 20 yards or more.
The Post-Dispatch's Bernie Miklasz brings up an interesting point: Jackson has played on a terrible team for the entirety of his eight-year career, and he's still managed to establish himself as one of the toughest running backs in the game.
SJ has received little help from the team, but he's consistently put up good numbers over a long stretch of seasons. Jackson has managed to produce at a high level and accumulate the yards under terrible circumstances that put him at a disadvantage. And that makes his career even more impressive.
Imagine what Jackson could do if he played for a competent team. Imagine what he could do if this offense ever gets its act together.
You never know: It happened last year, when Stafford and Johnson clicked. Maybe it's only a matter of time for Jackson to turn this offense into a weapon.
Prediction: Lions Win
It's true that miracles can happen, but when you look at the way these two teams stack up against each other, the Lions just look so much stronger—and they're playing at home.
Detroit's secondary may be on the weak side, but it's not as though the Rams have proven to be a high-octane offense under Sam Bradford.
You never know—this could be the year he turns it around, just like Stafford did last year—but I don't see the St. Louis defense finding a way to stop Stafford, Johnson and the Lions offense this week.