Detroit Lions' Future Blindingly Bright After Turnaround Season Punctuated by SNF Win

Brent SobleskiJanuary 9, 2023

Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
AP Photo/Morry Gash

The Detroit Lions knew they couldn't make the postseason when they took the field Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers. It didn't matter. All that mattered to Dan Campbell and his crew was getting a victory and ruining the playoff hopes of their division rival.

The Lions walked into Lambeau Field, punched the NFC North's long-time bully on the block and left as the better team. The 20-16 outcome is a microcosm of two franchises trending in opposite directions.

Detroit is now an ascending squad with multiple pieces already in place, with more to come. Meanwhile, the Packers are no longer Super Bowl contenders like they've previously been since Matt LaFleur took over as head coach. With the victory, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games, improved by 5.5 games over last season's effort and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2017.

"I don't want to hear that anymore, 'Same old Lions,'" head coach Dan Campbell told reporters after the game. "... I wanted to be a part of building a new brand. We need to get into the dance. That's the next step. We've improved. And next year, we'll be better."

The turnaround isn't through smoke and mirrors, either.

So many laughed at Campbell's introductory press conference when he mentioned that his team would "bite a kneecap off." Take a moment to look back at Campbell's entire quote and forget the old-school, meat-headed symbolism for a second.

"Here's what I do know. This team is going to take on the identity of this city and this city has been down and it found a way to get up. It's found a way to overcome adversity, right? So this team is going to be built on, we're going to kick you in the teeth, right? And when you punch us back, we're going to smile at you.

"And when you knock us down, we're going to get up and on the way up, we're going to bite a kneecap off. All right? And we're going to stand up and it's going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we're going to take your other kneecap and we're going to get up and it's going to take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we're going to take another hunk out of you."

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell
Detroit Lions head coach Dan CampbellAP Photo/Duane Burleson

Campbell's vision for his team has come true. He wanted the Lions to be a tough football team that wouldn't back down from anyone. That's exactly who they are. They've taken on the identity of their head coach and his staff. When Detroit had a chance to step on the Packers' proverbial throat Sunday, it didn't hesitate to do so with gusto.

Despite last year's 3-13 outcome, the embers of possible inferno kept warm throughout the campaign. While Detroit's roster may have been deficient, and the squad failed to make plays in key moments, the team never gave up on Campbell. The entire roster played hard each and every week.

As the personnel evolved and others got into Year 2 of the franchise's current plans, the results began to appear. What makes the Lions' future so bright is how the roster is built and the type of football it allows them to employ.

Quarterback Jared Goff played arguably the best football of his life over the second half of this season. His passer rating (108.4) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-0) since the start of Week 10 ranked first going into the final weekend of play, per the NFL on CBS.

Goff is a facilitator. His game is predicated on distributing the ball within the framework of the offensive scheme. This exact reason is why the Los Angeles Rams ultimately traded for Matthew Stafford and sent the 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick packing to Detroit. Yet Goff has been an ideal fit in offensive coordinator Ben Johnson's system because he's allowed to stand tall in the pocket and deliver without being constantly harassed.

"He's played great," Campbell said of his QB after his performance on Sunday. "He's really a perfect fit for what we do and what we ask."

The heartbeat of the Lions comes in the form of five 300-plus-pound men leading the way for the entire team. Detroit's offensive line is among the best two or three units the NFL has to offer. The group is powerful at the point of attack to open holes for the talented running back tandem of Jamaal Williams and D'Andre Swift and can create space to gain necessary yardage in crucial situations.

Detroit Lions right tackle Penei Sewell
Detroit Lions right tackle Penei SewellMike Mulholland/Getty Images

Dominance up front gives everyone confidence. The coaches aren't afraid to call a pass on 4th-and-short with the game on the line because they know protection will hold up. The running backs benefit and run hard because they understand lanes will appear.

Williams is yet another individual who capitalized on playing behind an elite group. In fact, his two rushing touchdowns against the Packers gave him 17 on the season, which eclipsed the great Barry Sanders for the most by a Lions running back.

Decisions need to be made on both Goff and Williams after this season. The 28-year-old Goff may not be the long-term answer behind center, but he's certainly good enough to remain the starter for the next season or two, at least until the Lions find or develop an upgrade. Williams, meanwhile, is a pending free agent, though a return seems likely after leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns.

A top-five offense overall is exciting. On the other hand, the league's 32nd-ranked defense is a great starting point for how the Lions can get better this offseason and build upon an already fantastic core of talent.

Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, James Houston, Malcolm Rodriguez and Kerby Joseph are key pieces, but so much more is needed. Maybe Jeff Okudah finally comes around and realizes his potential as a former third-overall draft pick. Even if he doesn't, the Lions have the next few months to upgrade the overall talent base through free-agent signings, trades and/or the NFL draft.

Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson
Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan HutchinsonAP Photo/Morry Gash

The draft will be a key component because Detroit owns a pair of first-round picks thanks to the previously mentioned Stafford trade. Because of the Rams' downturn, the Lions hold this year's sixth overall draft pick. That selection, coupled with the 18th pick, means significant talent upgrades can be added, particularly on defense.

Furthermore, Goff and Co. aren't a finalized product.

Detroit drafted the blazing-fast Jameson Williams with last year's 12th overall pick. They did so, even though he suffered a torn ACL in the previous College Football Playoff. Williams didn't even play until Week 13. Wait until he has a full offseason under his belt while being over a year removed from major knee surgery. His speed will tilt the field in the Lions' favor.

Also, more can be expected from the tight end position after the Lions traded T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings. Brock Wright could get a full season as the starter while the organization adds a little more to the position. In the meantime, Detroit has an extra second-round pick to play with because of the Hockenson deal.

Detroit is well on its way to becoming a force in the NFC. Yes, you read the previous sentence correctly.

The Lions aren't just a feel-good story. They're building things the right way with a strong foundation. The team is buying into Campbell's philosophy. The front office has multiple draft picks in this year's initial two rounds. And the defense can only get better from what everyone saw this season.

Beware of these brand-new Lions.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.