Kansas City enters the season favored to repeat as champions, while the Lions are among the most popular breakout picks and expected to make the playoffs for the first time in quite a while. We’ll get to see two explosive offenses take the field on Thursday night, although these teams might look just a bit different than we thought they would, whether due to injury, suspension or contract-related issues.
Before we break down the matchup, here’s a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch Lions-Chiefs
When the Chiefs have the ball
In five career Week 1 games, Patrick Mahomes has completed 121 of 167 passes (72.5%) for 1,542 yards (9.2 per attempt), 18 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. According to Tru Media, he’s averaged 0.55 expected points added (EPA) per dropback in those games — a rate that would usually be more than twice as good as the typical league leader.
Up against a Detroit defense that finished last season ranked 32nd in yards allowed, 28th in points allowed, 27th in FTN’s DVOA and 31st in Tru Media’s EPA per play, there is every reason to expect another monster performance. Except that we now have to consider what Mahomes has done with and without star tight end Travis Kelce, who hyperextended his knee in Tuesday’s practice. (According to his brother, Eagles center Jason Kelce, Travis has a.) Kelce has not missed a game due to injury since his rookie season, so obviously, Mahomes has played very few snaps without his top target on the field. Still, he has unsurprisingly gotten excellent results.
Mahomes, naturally, ranks first in the NFL in EPA (expected points added) per dropback during the five-year period since he became Kansas City’s starter. Of course, the 0.26 EPA per dropback he’s averaged with Kelce in the game is the best mark of the past five years, but the 0.18 he’s registered without Kelce would drop him all the way down to … second best.
However, taking a few snaps here or there without Kelce during the course of a drive is much different than having to play an entire game (or a stretch of the season) without him. And eventually, the fact that Mahomes has thrown much shorter passes (6.2 air yards per attempt vs. 8.3), created fewer first downs (34.9% of attempts vs. 40.5%) and explosive plays (8.2% of dropbacks vs. 10.1%), and thrown for touchdowns less often (5.0% of attempts vs. 6.6%) with Kelce on the sideline than on the field would have a significant effect on Kansas City’s offense.
If Kelce does suit up and play his usual complement of snaps, we should expect him to absolutely eat. Detroit’s linebackers were uniformly awful in coverage last season, and on the type of intermediate passes that Kelce excels at catching, the Lions allowed the league’s fifth-worst EPA per dropback. Adding Jack Campbell via the draft and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson via free agency should help in that department — just, probably not enough to shut down Kelce, who is the NFL’s most dangerous weapon in that area of the field.
In the unlikely event that Kelce is just totally blanketed, Kansas City has plenty of other ways for Mahomes to tear up a defense. They don’t necessarily have a true No. 1 receiver, but the Chiefs do have multiple players who can excel in specific roles. Kadarius Toney is the best of the bunch, but he’s likely to be limited to packaged plays in his return from knee surgery. Still, we saw in the Super Bowl how dangerous he can be even while playing limited snaps. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is the deep threat, Skyy Moore will work the slot, Justyn Ross can make contested catches, Rashee Rice can do the type of jet sweep and designed touches and Mecole Hardman did and even Justin Watson can be a threat on play-action passes.
The Chiefs have shown that as long as they can keep Mahomes upright with a strong offensive line, it almost doesn’t matter who their receivers are. Their quarterback and their head coach (Andy Reid) are that good. Kansas City’s offensive line is that good, too. They have arguably the best interior trio in the NFL (Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith), and while Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor have some question marks attached to them, they should be able to hold up well enough for Mahomes to do his thing. Detroit’s pass rush was right around league average in terms of creating pressure last season (34.9% of opponent dropbacks compared to the 33.2% leaguewide rate), but struggled to turn pressure into sacks (17.4% vs. 19.3% average), which is an especially dangerous combination against Mahomes, who is second to none at creating outside of structure.
If the Lions can’t find a way to manufacture pressure, they are probably drawing dead when it comes to stopping the Chiefs already. But that’s especially true considering the weakness of their defense last season was actually in the run game, and the Lions didn’t make any significant additions to their defensive front. The Lions allowed 2.03 yards per contact per carry last season, per Tru Media, the third-worst mark in the NFL. They also allowed 3.19 yards after contact per rush, the fourth-worst figure. With their power run game, the Chiefs checked in second in yards before contact per carry a year ago. That’s not a good combination for the Detroit defense, which has its hands full in every area of this matchup.
When the Lions have the ball
The first and most important thing to note here is that the Chiefs will be playing this game without Chris Jones, who is by far their best pass-rush threat. That’s particularly important because the Lions have a good offensive line whose weakness in pass protection is probably up the middle, where Jones does his work, and because there might not be a single quarterback in all of football whose performance drops off more when under pressure than Jared Goff’s.
We saw this during his time in Los Angeles, and we have seen it again throughout his two years in Detroit. When throwing from a clean pocket, Goff has put up top-10 numbers leaguewide. Under pressure, he’s collapsed to the bottom-10.
Without Jones, the Chiefs are obviously less likely to generate pressure on Goff. Last season, Kansas City’s defense recorded a sack, hit or hurry on 37% of opponent dropbacks, but only 29% of dropbacks with him on the sideline. That’s a pretty significant difference. Without Jones and the suspended Charles Omenihu, it will largely be up to edge rushers George Karlaftis and Mike Danna, plus rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah to create pressure on Goff. (Interior linemen Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton aren’t big pass-rush threats.)
If and when Goff does have time to throw, we know who his top target will be: slot man Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Sun God is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance after hauling in 106 receptions for 1,161 yards and six touchdowns last season. He lined up in the slot on 54% of his routes, according to Tru Media, and when he did so he was targeted on 28.8% of this routes, catching 61 of 83 passes thrown his way for 596 yards and a score. The Chiefs used multiple different defenders in the slot last season, with L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie filling that role at different times, and later in the season depending on the matchup. Whichever of them is tasked with defending St. Brown will have his hands full.
Things are a bit more up in the air for the Lions on the outside. At least until Jameson Williams returns from his six-game suspension, Detroit does not have a high-level threat outside the numbers. Marvin Jones, Josh Reynolds, and Kalif Raymond figure to get the most opportunities, but none of them should scare defenses all that much. Instead, the passing game will largely flow through St. Brown and a pair of rookies: tight end Sam LaPorta and running back Jahmyr Gibbs. Being that that trio of players consists of a slot receiver, a tight end and a back, it’s likely that most of Detroit’s targets will be short-area throws, so the Lions will need them to consistently create yards after the catch in order to make big plays. Linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay, plus safeties Justin Reid and Brian Cook, will need to be at their best in the tackling department.
The Lions had success running the ball with a lot of different looks last season, and should again bring a varied run game to the table this year. How it will fare with a different pair of backs (Gibbs and David Montgomery in place of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams) remains to be seen, but the line should block things up well enough for a duo that fits well together given their divergent body types and skill sets. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has shown he can scheme things up and put players in position to succeed.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Lions 27