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2023 NFL Kickoff Game: Four things to watch for in Lions-Chiefs

Detroit Lions
2023 · 0-0-0
Kansas City Chiefs
2023 · 0-0-0
  • WHERE: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City)
  • WHEN: 8:20 p.m. ET | NBC, NFL+

The Kansas City Chiefs have dominated the NFL spotlight the past five years, winning two Super Bowls and making the conference title game or better every season. They also enter the season attempting to win their eighth straight AFC West title.

The last time the Detroit Lions had a period of that caliber dominance? The late 1950s. They last won their division in 1993, then known as the NFC Central.

So why are the Lions being featured in such a marquee slot against the defending Super Bowl champs on Thursday night? Because ever since the league announced this season’s schedule, it’s been clear that the NFL is betting that the Lions’ hot streak down the stretch in 2022 portends good things for the long-woebegone franchise. 

It’s a big bet. Andy Reid and the Chiefs are 40-9 at Arrowhead Stadium with Patrick Mahomes. And though the Chiefs could be without two of their biggest stars in the opener, it’s arguable this is the Lions’ highest-profile game since their last postseason contest: a wild-card loss to the Seahawks in Jan. 2017.

How will Dan Campbell’s team handle the spotlight? Can the Lions' rebuilt defense slow down Mahomes and Co.? Or will the Chiefs do to the Lions what they did to the Texans in the 2020 kickoff game, scoring 31 straight points en route to a laugher?

Here are four things to watch for when the Lions visit the Chiefs on Thursday night:

  1. How big of a loss will Travis Kelce be? Midway through Tuesday’s Chiefs practice, the Chiefs’ All-Pro tight end suffered a bone bruise in his knee, an injury that will sideline him for Thursday's game. The Chiefs simply are not used to playing without him. Kelce has not missed a game due to injury since his rookie season in 2013. He’s sat out a handful of games since then, typically for late-season rest. Kelce missed the Chiefs’ Week 16 game in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols, and all Mahomes did was divvy up his 30 passes among 10 different receivers in a 36-10 blowout of the Steelers, with Byron Pringle, Derrick Gore and Mecole Hardman leading the way. This is what makes Kansas City so tough to defend. Kadarius Toney is good to go after dealing with a preseason knee injury. The Chiefs also have ample other weapons to make up for Kelce’s loss; it could be a breakout game for second-year receiver Skyy Moore, and Kelce’s backup, Noah Gray, is a better receiver than many might realize. But no Kelce also makes Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn's job easier and allows him more coverage flexibility. 
  2. The Lions’ defense must show it’s vastly better. Although Detroit improved defensively during its 8-2 finish to end last season, that unit finished last year ranked in the bottom five of several major categories. The offseason brought additions to all three levels of the defense and especially to a secondary that was picked on repeatedly. The pass rush will be important, especially in this game with Mahomes working behind two new offensive tackles (Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor), but the secondary is guaranteed to be tested -- with or without Kelce on the field. The Lions will be without cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who has been slow to return from offseason knee surgery. Jerry Jacobs, who has started 17 games the past two seasons, likely would take his place. But he’d be one of the few returnees in a group that also now includes Cam Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and rookie Brian Branch, who seems to have already earned a role on defense. They’d better buckle up going up against the wizard on Thursday.
  3. Chris Jones’ holdout has him on track to miss kickoff. Unlike the Kelce injury, Jones’ absence has been on the Chiefs’ mind for some time now. Jones held out of training camp and the preseason amid contract demands, and it’s not clear when Jones will return. There’s just no getting around it: The Chiefs are a different defense without him. According to Next Gen Stats, Kansas City ranks 13th in pressure rate and third in sack rate with Jones on the field. Without him, they’re 30th and 31st, respectively, in those categories. Nothing against Jones’ potential replacements inside (Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton, Neil Farrell and rookie Keondre Coburn) but none of them command attention nor disrupt opponents anywhere close to the way Jones does. The Lions feature a good offensive line, turning in the third-best sack percentage allowed last year (3.9%), and a fully healthy Frank Ragnow at center this season could make this group better. Can the Chiefs rush the passer without Jones? That’s a stiff test, although George Karlaftis, Charles Omenihu, Mike Danna and rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah are all high-energy rushers.
  4. Can Gibbs, LaPorta make an instant impact? The Lions were an explosive offense a season ago, ranking in the top 10 in most major categories and topping 40 points three times -- the same number of times the Chiefs did that. But it was clear Detroit wanted to develop and add as many complementary weapons as possible this offseason alongside Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was its one true difference maker after T.J. Hockenson was traded midseason last year. The Lions landed running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta in Rounds 1 and 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft, respectively, adding two highly athletic and surprisingly tough pass-catching options. With wideout Jameson Williams suspended for the first six games of the season due to violating the league's gambling policy, it’s possible they’ll be fast-tracked into considerable early roles. Gibbs will be used alongside David Montgomery as a runner (and maybe as a returner, too), but the question is how quickly he and LaPorta can make impacts as receivers? And how much Jared Goff will trust them? Combined, they had only one preseason catch. Have the cagey Lions been holding back Gibbs’ and LaPorta’s receiving skills? Kansas City’s defense was middling covering tight ends a year ago, and backs such as Austin Ekeler have done damage against them in the past. Keep an eye on the Lions’ rookie pair in this one.

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