The Detroit Lions have wrapped up a season like no other. Let’s see if it can be a postseason like no other as well.
The Lions defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Week 18 to finish the regular season with a 12-5 record. After a heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Lions yet again answered adversity. The Lions did not lose any back-to-back games this season, highlighting their resilience under Dan Campbell.
However, a dark cloud lingers despite the victory. Let’s take a look.
Meaningful injuries in a (mostly) meaningless game
The outcome of this game mattered little in the grand scheme of things—the lone difference being an outside shot at the second seed in the NFC. Dan Campbell and the Lions wanted to keep playing their starters, and there were immediate consequences to that decision. Rookie sensation Sam LaPorta exited the game in the second quarter after sustaining a knee injury. Though the tight end was able to walk off the field, he was soon carted to the locker room.
LaPorta will reportedly miss “some time” with the exact timeline uncertain, but this could be a massive blow to the Lions’ playoff chances. LaPorta has unquestionably been a focal point of the offense, and their offense will look entirely different should he miss time. The only remaining tight ends of the active roster are James Mitchell (12 career receptions) and Brock Wright (inactive with a hip injury), neither of whom can replace the weapon that is LaPorta. Perhaps the Lions will look at free agent Zach Ertz for their playoff run.
Early in the fourth quarter, Kalif Raymond was tackled from behind and promptly grabbed his knee. He, too, walked off under his own power, but like LaPorta, he did not return to the game. With Jameson Williams inactive as he recovers from his own injury, Raymond was next in line as the Lions’ deep threat, but that too is in jeopardy for the playoffs. Coupled with Amon-Ra St. Brown potentially nursing an injury suffered in this game (he looked okay on his 70-yard touchdown, however), it was a tough game for the Lions receiving group.
Campbell will be criticized for not resting his starters in a game with little at stake. Yet, Campbell is also a coach that fights from start to finish, and resting starters would have been out of character. By resting your starters, you also run the risk of rust before a crucial Wild Card matchup. Plus, you cannot realistically sit every starter. Raymond, for example, would not have been one of the starters resting for this game. Had this injury happened to an offensive lineman, it would have been unavoidable purely due to roster size limitations.
There were pros and cons to the decision to play some of their starters. Sadly, the cons are at the forefront right now.
No answer for Jefferson again
It won’t matter come the playoffs, but the Lions need to do something about Justin Jefferson in the seasons to come. The Vikings star receiver again gutted the Lions secondary, totaling 192 yards on 12 catches. This is on the back of his 141-yard performance against Detroit in Week 16. In eight career games against the Lions, Jefferson has a ridiculous 62 receptions and 1,073 yards, plus a modest three touchdowns—that’s an average of 134 yards per game.
The Lions need to adjust how they cover elite receivers. The cornerbacks (largely Cam Sutton and Kindle Vildor) cannot win their 1-on-1s, while the safeties are too often not in position to assist (whether by design or miscommunication). Nick Mullens is a mediocre quarterback at best, yet he has thrown for 807 yards against the Lions this season. Imagine what a good quarterback and receiver duo could do against this secondary. Actually, there is no need to imagine, just look at CeeDee Lamb’s 227-yard game last week.
The Lions are in the playoffs, but if they want to go any further, they will need their cornerbacks to slow down opposing wideouts.
A season to remember for Hutchinson
Aidan Hutchinson has been among the NFL’s leaders in pressures all season, but he was always lagging behind in sacks. That has certainly changed over the final month of the season. Hutchinson had three last week against the Cowboys against some quality linemen. He followed up his primetime performance with two sacks against the Vikings, putting this season total at 11.5 and pushing him into the double digits.
Hutchinson has taken a massive step forward this season into elite territory and is well deserving of his Pro Bowl nod.
Sorry Erik, I’m stealing this:
Jack Campbell notched the second sack of his career against the Vikings, but that wasn’t the only feat the rookie linebacker accomplished. Campbell led the team in tackles with 12, one of which went for a loss. Campbell had a rough start to his career, but over the final two months, he has really stepped up. He and Alex Anzalone (nine tackles) have become a very dependable linebacking duo.
A late rally for Josh Reynolds
Josh Reynolds had a string of screen catches late in the game with the outcome all but decided. The FOX commentators were confused about this, attributing it to Dan Campbell’s aggressiveness. However, these plays happened for a different reason: to get Josh Reynolds paid.
Dan Campbell on getting Josh Reynolds his bonus at the end:— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) January 7, 2024
Says when you have a guy who does everything right and does all the dirty work, "we're going to do everything we can to get him something."
Reynolds needed 36 receiving yards to trigger a contract incentive of $250,000. Prior to the final drive, Reynolds had just one catch for 18 yards. The final four plays of the game all went to Reynolds, adding receptions of nine, eight, two, and seven yards. This gave him 44 yards on the day, securing him that extra bag of cash.
Reynolds could have added another $250,000 with a touchdown, but that unfortunately came up short despite some targets in the red zone earlier in the day. Still, it is nice to see the team looking out for one of their own like this.
It was a standout day for the special teams unit. Jack Fox continues to be an elite punter, delivering multiple booming punts that were downed inside the 10-yard line that set up Minnesota with a long field. Kalif Raymond had a season-best performance as a punt returner, each of his four punt returns exceeding his season average (including a long 42 yarder). Sadly, he suffered the aforementioned knee injury. It will be interesting to see who takes his place at returner if Raymond’s injury ends up costing him time—Maurice Alexander had a punt return touchdown in the preseason and is currently on the practice squad, while Donovan Peoples-Jones has experience from his time with the Cleveland Browns.
The special teams coverage didn’t give up anything massive in the return game, so that’s a win as well. However, I couldn’t give the entire special teams unit a stock up since Michael Badgley missed an extra point.
John’s Turning Point: Minnesota’s turnover on downs in the third quarter
Detroit was in the driver seat for a majority of this game, so there isn’t a perfect turning point to highlight. However, one moment stands out to me. The Vikings received the second half kickoff down 13-6, still within a touchdown of the Lions. The Vikings grinded their way down field and were faced with a fourth-and-3 at the Detroit 31. However, Nick Mullens threw short of the sticks to Brandon Powell, turning the ball over on downs.
The Lions marched down the field on the ensuing possession for a short David Montgomery touchdown. This allowed Detroit to build a lead they would not relinquish—the Vikings wouldn’t possess the ball with a one-score deficit the rest of the game.