Can the Detroit Lions be the 2020 NFL season’s surprise package?

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The Tennessee Titans were the surprise package of the 2019 season, rising from mediocrity to the AFC Championship Game. Mike Vrabel’s men held the lead against the Kansas City Chiefs before Patrick Mahomes rallied his side and led them to the Super Bowl, where they were eventually crowned as the champions. The beauty of the NFL is that any time can surge out of nowhere to the top of the standings. Several teams will be looking to emulate the success of the Titans. One, in particular, has a decent chance of rising from worst to first in the NFC Conference.

The Detroit Lions endured a nightmare campaign in 2019, suffering a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball. Head coach Matt Patricia also had to endure a mutiny from All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay amid crossed words between the two men. It resulted in the departure of Slay in a trade deal to the Philadelphia Eagles in the off-season. In two years under Patricia’s tenure, the Lions have gone backwards since he replaced Jim Caldwell. The 47-year-old is under immense pressure to improve their record this term otherwise it will likely be his final year in charge in Detroit.

The Lions are backed in the NFL odds on bet365 at +480 to win the NFC North this season, highlighting the task ahead of Patricia against the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. However, they do have a talented roster, which could emulate the Titans’ success. Before an injury curtailed his season, quarterback Matt Stafford was enjoying one of the best years of his career. Stafford threw 19 touchdowns to only five interceptions in his eight games along with 2,499 yards. Projected over an entire campaign that would be 5,000 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions – which are MVP standard numbers.

Stafford has reached the point in his career where he is comfortable in his routine and knows the offence inside and out. He now needs to channel that consistency in the players around him. Kenny Golladay is developing into an All-Pro calibre wideout, while Danny Amendola and Marvin Jones are reliable options. The Lions’ biggest area for growth will be the performances of their tight ends. T.J Hockenson produced an outstanding debut before being limited by injuries for the rest of the year, while Jesse James was not fully utilised in the offence. Watch out for them to make a larger impact, especially if the running game comes to life.

Kerryon Johnson was another injured Lion last year. The running back sustained a knee injury after a fine performance in a defeat to the Chiefs. Detroit drafted D’Andre Swift to ease the pressure on Johnson in the back-field. With a one-two punch at running back, the Lions have the chance to open up the entirety of the field. Should they deliver on their potential there’s an opportunity for their offence to become the best in the NFC North.

Patricia opted for familiarity with his defensive moves in the off-season. Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon both played under him at the New England Patriots. For the last two years, Danny Shelton played in the same system under Bill Belichick that Patricia deploys in Detroit. The three additions provide experience and quality at all three levels of the defence. The Lions’ defence has not operated at the standard fans would have expected out of a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots. The defensive performances more than anything else will determine whether the Lions are a playoff team or looking for a new coach in January.