Less than a week after the Detroit Lions seemed to be in dire straits, losing two of their last three games and succumbing in the rematch with the Chicago Bears, Detroit seems to be back on track.
They are now 10-4 after a 42-17 win over the Denver Broncos at home. So much for Sean Payton embarrassing former mentee Dan Campbell, right?
It’s no coincidence that as center Frank Ragnow returned to the lineup (after missing just one game), quarterback Jared Goff completed 24 of his 34 passing attempts for 278 yards and five touchdowns, tying a career-high in touchdown passes. The O-line gave Goff more attempts with over 2.5 seconds to throw than under, according to Next Gen Stats, but he was effective regardless. Three of his five touchdowns came with less than 2.5 seconds to throw. Goff also became just the third Detroit Lions quarterback to have three or more games with four or more touchdown passes.
Against the league’s worst rushing defense, David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs combined for 185 rushing yards. Gibbs also scored his first NFL receiving touchdown. Gibbs finished with 108 total yards from scrimmage and two total touchdowns. It certainly helped sell all the play action the Lions ended up running offensively.
Detroit’s young players came through in a big way Saturday. Second-round pick Sam LaPorta had the second multi-touchdown game of his short NFL career, catching five of his six targets for 56 yards and three touchdowns. He’s just the third NFL rookie tight end to have multiple games with more than one touchdown, joining Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. LaPorta is the only rookie tight end in NFL history to record at least 70 receptions, 700 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Those nine touchdown receptions set a new Lions single-season tight end record, too. And in case that wasn’t enough, he also passed Roy Williams for the most receiving touchdowns by any Detroit rookie, period.
For reference, Rob Gronkowski had 42 receptions for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns in his rookie season. Travis Kelce didn’t have nine receiving touchdowns in a season until his sixth year in the league.
Long story, short: LaPorta is one of the most impressive rookie tight ends the NFL has ever seen.
The best available version of Detroit’s offense was what we saw Saturday night against Denver. The health of the offensive line and contributions from young players helped Detroit cruise to 448 total offensive yards. They scored on all six of their trips inside the red zone, too. And playing with a lead they never relinquished allowed Goff to play at his ceiling, rather than his floor.
“It was a concerted effort to be aggressive and to be aggressive early and to get back to who we know we are,” said Goff after the game. “I think in the pass game we’ve had some stumbles over the last few weeks and getting back to who we are by kind of forcing the aggression was great.”
On top of the offense rediscovering itself, the Lions defense made some serious adjustments against the Broncos. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn brought substantial pressure against Denver quarterback Russell Wilson all night. He got creative with it, too. The first sack on Wilson came from corner Ifeatu Melifonwu, affectionately known as iffy, as Melifonwu has played his way into the depleted cornerback rotation. The Lions had two sacks and eight quarterback hits on the night.
The pass rush, in turn, helped out the injured secondary, which has played under a limited rotation since losing both C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley (who was injured in his first game back). The team could be getting Gardner-Johnson back as early as next week. He’s been medically cleared to practice as of Thursday.
Then there were the guys in the middle. Linebacker Alex Anzalone, in particular. He was all over the Broncos offense, at one point forcing Wilson to take a timeout because Anzalone called out the play Denver was about to run at the line — real Luke Kuechly stuff out there.
Anzalone led the team with 12 tackles and tallied two of those quarterback hits, along with a tackle for loss and pass breakup.
It was a well-rounded effort by the Lions at home on prime time, and it was exactly what Detroit needed as they stare down their first postseason appearance in seven seasons. Their early-season pace made a playoff berth look inevitable, but with injuries piling up the last few weeks, confidence in the Lions had waned.
Against the surging Broncos, that confidence was restored. The most glaring issues looked fixable, if not outright fixed. Now, if Seattle loses or ties against the Eagles on Monday, the Lions will clinch a playoff berth. To win the division for the first time since 1993, they’ll need a win over the Nick Mullens-led Vikings on Christmas Eve. That shouldn’t be too tall a task.
“We know the history,” said Goff. “We know how long it’s been. But we don’t carry that pressure of 30 years. This is the 2023 Lions.”
Exhale, Detroit fans. The Lions are going to be alright.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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