NFL

Detroit Lions 2023 NFL Season Preview and Picks

By Scott Kacsmar

The Detroit Lions enter the 2023 NFL season in a position we are very unfamiliar with seeing them in. For the first time since the 1982 season, the Lions are the outright preseason favorite at the sportsbooks to win their division.

Let’s hope it goes better than last time as the 1982 Lions finished 4-5 and missed the expanded playoffs in what was a 9-game strike season. The only other time since when the Lions were even co-favorites in a division was in 1992, the year after they were 12-4 and won their only playoff game in the Super Bowl era. They finished that year 5-11, so higher expectations have never been kind to this franchise.

But the expectations are there after the Lions finished 9-8 and just missed out on the playoffs last season, the second under coach Dan Campbell. It also helps that the NFC North looks wide open with Aaron Rodgers getting traded to the Jets, the Bears coming off a 3-14 season, and the Vikings have regression written all over them after so many close wins a year ago.

If not now, then when for Detroit to end this playoff drought and host a game in January? We look back at their 2022 season, the key offseason changes, the liability of a hot finish, and what the best Lions bets are for 2023.

2022 Season Recap: Tale of Two Seasons    

The Lions did not have playoff expectations going into 2022, but they sure had more hype than a team that started 1-6 with the worst defense in the league. But there was no denying the team fought hard – 12-5 ATS was the second-best spread record in 2022 – and played in some exciting games.

There were 281 combined points in Detroit’s first four games of 2022, the most in NFL history for a team’s first four games in a season. That fact made it awkward when the Lions, coming off a wild 48-45 loss to Seattle, lost 29-0 on the road to Bill Belichick’s Patriots to fall to 1-4 going into an early bye week. The Lions did not stop the bleeding right away as they lost to the Cowboys (24-6) and Dolphins (31-27) too for a 1-6 start.

But November did bring a turning point when the Lions intercepted Aaron Rodgers three times in a stunning 15-9 win. A week later, the Lions erased a 24-10 deficit in the fourth quarter in Chicago thanks to a pick-six along the way in a 31-30 win.

The Lions then played one of their better defensive games in New York to beat the Giants 31-18. A tough loss on Thanksgiving to Buffalo, 28-25 on a last-second field goal, showed the nation that Detroit could go toe to toe with what was the Super Bowl favorite at that time.

The Lions dropped 40 points on the Jaguars, got revenge on the Vikings in a 34-23 win, and knocked off the Jets at the end of the game in a 20-17 win.

Things were looking good for a wild card at 7-7, but the Lions suffered their worst loss of the season in Week 16 in Carolina. The Lions were outrushed by a disgusting 320-45 margin in yards, and it was only the second time all season the defense failed to generate a takeaway. The Lions were down 31-7 and lost 37-23 after allowing two 125-yard rushers.

Another blowout of the Bears (41-10) got the Lions back to .500, but they were already eliminated from playoff contention before the final game of the season thanks to Seattle’s comeback win in Week 18. That 48-45 loss to the Seahawks proved to be a crucial one in the wild-card standings. All the Lions could do was spoil Green Bay’s season and knock their rival out of the tournament while finishing with a winning record instead (9-8). They did exactly that with a 20-16 upset win as Jared Goff outplayed Rodgers in his final game as a Packer. Rodgers’ final pass with the team was an interception in the fourth quarter.

The Lions were able to sweep Green Bay only three times (2017, 2018, and 2022) in the Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers eras since 1992.

With Rodgers gone, is it Detroit’s era to shine in the NFC North?

Offseason Review

Unlike many teams who missed the playoffs, the Lions are bringing back the same head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, and quarterback. The schemes are not changing, so it comes down to the talent stepping up.

One thing the Lions did not do was splurge on big names in free agency.

  • The biggest pickup was defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who led the Eagles with six interceptions last year, or more than the five picks he had in three years with New Orleans.
  • They lifted running back David Montgomery from the Bears to add depth to the backfield.
  • They brought back wide receiver Marvin Jones, who is a reliable target but past his prime.
  • Detroit also sent a minor draft pick in July to the Jets for Denzel Mims, a wide receiver who has yet to do anything in three years.
  • The defense acquired corner Emmanuel Moseley from the 49ers, and he is currently on the PUP list.
  • After trading Jeff Okudah after three frustrating seasons, the Lions also added Cam Sutton from Pittsburgh for more corner depth.

Nothing there really feels like it moves the needle direction for this team. They could be better served by Aidan Hutchinson breaking out as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his second season after a quality rookie start. Ditto on wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown continuing his rise as one of the best in the game after 106 catches last year.

As for Detroit’s draft, it is one of the more polarizing classes out there this year. The Lions drafted five players in the top 68 picks, but the order in which they obtained them has been most scrutinized:

  • Detroit used its top pick at No. 12 on a running back (Jahmyr Gibbs), which has been proven to be a bad move for long-term success at a position that is so easy to find a starter elsewhere. Gibbs could be a good player and the Lions did lose Jamaal Williams (1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns) and D’Andre Swift but going with Montgomery and a committee feels like the smarter approach.
  • The Lions spent the No. 18 pick on Iowa’s Jack Campbell, an off-ball linebacker many thought would be there in the second round since he is not a big contributor to the pass rush. He should start Week 1 to justify this pick.
  • Tight end Sam LaPorta was the No. 34 pick and gives the Lions an option at a position they had little use for after trading T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings.
  • Alabama safety Brian Branch slid a little to the Lions at 45, and some had him ranked as the top safety in the class.
  • Some thought Hendon Hooker had a shot to be the No. 5 quarterback in this class and a first-round pick, but he slid all the way to No. 68 to Detroit as a project they can develop behind Goff. His playing style at Tennessee was very unconventional and he is coming off an ACL injury.

Much is forgiven if the players turn out to be good, but you can start to see arguments for taking players at different spots if these are the positions the Lions really coveted. For example, why not tight end Dalton Kincaid, the top-rated receiving tight end in the draft, at No. 18 if Campbell (or Branch) would have been there at 34? The Lions have been burned by defensive backs before, but maybe corner Christian Gonzalez at 12 and a running back later would have been the right move too.

Time will tell on this draft, but it does not look like enough positional value or a group of players that will push the team over the top in 2023.  

This Year’s Area of Interest: Will Detroit Stumble Early?

One of the dangers in NFL predictions is when people expect a team who had a poor start and hot finish to start the next season as the hot team we last saw. Unless there was a case of a star quarterback returning late in a season, it is usually irresponsible to break down a season this way by throwing out half the data.

The Lions are still just as much the team that was blanked 29-0 in New England as they were the team that won 41-10 over Chicago. Worse, when things were going so well, they still dropped that ugly loss in Carolina by getting destroyed on the ground.

We just went over how the Lions did not upgrade with Pro Bowl players or real needle movers, so it is on Dan Campbell and his staff to get the best of what they already have. In two years, Campbell’s Lions have imploded out the gates. They were competitive, but 0-8 and 1-6 are awful starts.

The 2022 Lions are the 140th team since the 1970 merger to start exactly 1-6. They are the 139th such team to not make the playoffs. Only the 1970 Bengals (8-6 division winner) made the playoffs after starting 1-6.

But the Lions are the third team out of 140 on that list to finish with a winning record, joining the 1970 Bengals and 2021 Dolphins (9-8). Granted, the new 17th game is how the Lions and Dolphins got their ninth win the last two years. Otherwise, they would have been 8-8 teams just like the seven other teams to finish 8-8 after a 1-6 start.

Out of these 10 teams with a 1-6 start who finished with 8-to-9 wins, only two of them made the playoffs the following year (Detroit pending):

  • 1970-71 Bengals: 8-6 (playoff loss) to 4-10 (no playoffs)
  • 1981-82 Redskins: 8-8 to 8-1 (won Super Bowl)
  • 1984-85 Packers: 8-8 to 8-8 (no playoffs)
  • 1984-85 Bengals: 8-8 to 7-9 (no playoffs)
  • 1996-97 Bengals: 8-8 to 7-9 (no playoffs)
  • 1999-00 Jets: 8-8 to 9-7 (no playoffs)
  • 2009-10 Titans: 8-8 to 6-10 (no playoffs)
  • 2011-12 Cardinals: 8-8 to 5-11 (no playoffs)
  • 2021-22 Dolphins: 9-8 to 9-8 (wild card loss)
  • 2022-23 Lions: 9-8 to TBD

Forgive me for not thinking these Lions are about to go on a 1980s Redskins run like Joe Gibbs did. Notice how none of these teams exceeded 9 wins the following year.

There is also the case of which teams the Lions won and lost against in 2022. Looking back, 6-of-8 losses were to playoff teams, and the Patriots and Panthers, arguably the two low points of 2022 for Detroit, were at least a game out of the playoffs last year.

Only 3-of-9 wins were against playoff teams, and the Vikings, Jaguars, and Giants were bottom-tier playoff teams last year if we are being honest.

The Lions still have a lot of improving on defense to do to get past the 9-win territory. The offense should still be the better unit this year, and Jared Goff had his best season since his Super Bowl year with the 2018 Rams. But there is still a level of distrust with him as a starter.

Last year, Goff threw 23 of his 29 touchdown passes in home games. Prior to 2022, Goff had more touchdown passes on the road (64) than he did at home (61), so this was a wild split last year. Goff only had 5 touchdown passes in games played outside of a dome.

Best Bets for the 2023 Lions

Since Campbell took over as coach in 2021, the Lions are a league-best 23-11 ATS (67.7%). This team knows how to compete and is a tough out, but it is hard to trust this team to be consistent enough to make the playoffs, let alone win a division title.

  • The schedule provides a great litmus test right away with Detroit opening in Kansas City on banner night for the Chiefs. That is always the kind of game this Detroit team loses, so they could instantly make a statement in that one, but this looks like an 0-1 start.
  • Trips to Baltimore, the Chargers, New Orleans, and Dallas are also not going to be easy.
  • The first game with Green Bay is on the road on a short week (Thursday night), so that is not favorable to the Lions. It seems unlikely they will sweep Green Bay again, but splitting the division series is very realistic.
  • The Lions need to extract some revenge against Carolina for that loss last year when they host the Panthers in Week 5. If they do not win that game, it is hard to see this season going anywhere for them.
  • The NFC North could possibly be decided in Week 18 when the Lions host the Vikings. It would not be surprising if 9-8 or 10-7 won the division this year.

But with Detroit not making enough big changes this offseason, why should the record change that much in 2023? That is why my best bet for the Lions is to finish under 9.5 wins, and there is good value in them to finish with exactly 9 wins again.

Is that enough for the playoffs? Maybe, but the NFC cannot be trusted this year outside of a few teams, and the Lions are not one of those teams.

NFL Pick: Detroit Lions under 9.5 wins (+100 at FanDuel)

NFL Pick: Detroit Lions to win exactly 9 games (+550 at FanDuel)

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