ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Quandre Diggs looked down at his watch for half a second. It was almost as if he was prepared for this question. Five years into his NFL career, Diggs understands what is coming; what games early in the season may mean compared to later ones.
“September 25th, y’all got to ask crazy questions. September 25th, Week 4,” Diggs said. “At the end of the day, we got a lot of football to be played.”
Sure, the NFL season is less than a quarter old and there is much to be decided, but the Lions have been one of the surprises of the NFL. Seven NFL teams have yet to lose a game, and of that group only the Buffalo Bills might be more unexpected than Detroit.
The wins haven’t been pretty or anywhere near complete. There’s the 18-point lead that disappeared, resulting in a tie against the Arizona Cardinals and times when the Lions have played like they should have lost to the Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles.
But in the end, they pulled out wins the last two weeks over two 2018 playoff teams, the Chargers and Eagles, with last-minute defensive stops. Here the Lions are in Week 4, at 2-0-1, facing Kansas City (3-0) — the latest an undefeated Lions team has played against another undefeated team since 1962.
It’s unknown what Detroit is yet, real contender or not. That’s part of the challenge of early-season football. Every team is figuring out where they might fit in the yearly landscape that is the parity-driven NFL. The Lions have not had a dominating offensive or defensive performance. Statistically, the Lions rank in the top 10 in less than a handful of categories: Sacks allowed (three, tied for fourth), average kick return yards (37.0, third) and time of possession (31:55, 10th).
Yet the Lions have a chance to do something rare for the franchise: Become a very relevant team in an NFL season. Beating the Chiefs would do that. Even staying close with Kansas City could be a sign of validation considering how other teams have fared against the Chiefs. Only the Baltimore Ravens have been within 10 points — after Kansas City built a 23-6 first half lead.
So how could Lions pull off the upset, one that would launch them into a conversation of being a real playoff contender? Here are a few ways:
It is unknown if the Lions will have their Pro Bowl cornerback available. Even if he is, hamstring injuries are tricky and tend to linger. How close he’ll be to full strength is a major question. But he is Detroit’s fastest cornerback and best on-ball corner. Facing Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, you need all of your best defensive options. No Slay would cause even larger issues. Mike Ford would likely take his place on the outside — and the Chiefs would likely target Ford early. Detroit’s secondary, including two of the club’s better surprises in outside corner Rashaan Melvin and slot corner Justin Coleman, has been one of the better groups in the NFL. But without Slay, Kansas City becomes an even bigger problem.
Manage the first half
The Chiefs are leading the NFL in points per game (35.1) and have been devastating in the first half. Over the past season-plus, Kansas City has scored 164 points in the first quarter — 42 better than second-place Baltimore. This season, their second quarter has been particularly potent. The Chiefs have scored a league-high 57 points in the second quarter the first three weeks — including 28 against Oakland and 23 against Baltimore.
“They score so fast,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “The second quarter alone, they’ve been able to just kind of put points up on the board at an unbelievable pace. So I don’t think you really just sit back and wait.”
In that vein, the Lions are likely going to have to score at least 30 points to win. In the Chiefs’ five losses last year, they scored less than 30 just once, a 29-28 loss to the Chargers.
Long drives — that finish
Limiting Kansas City’s possessions are a key to beating the Chiefs and doing what Patricia said he hoped for earlier this week — keeping Patrick Mahomes on the sideline. This means long drives that can take up seven, eight or nine minutes. In order for that strategy to work, those drives have to end in touchdowns.
One of the common threads in the Chiefs’ five losses last year — four in the regular season and in AFC championship game to New England — were shorter Kansas City possessions. Only twice in those games did the Chiefs have the ball longer than 25 minutes –- losses to the Rams and Chargers.
Kansas City lost to the Patriots twice last season, only possessing the ball 23:51 in its regular season loss and 20:53 in its conference title game defeat. In four of the five losses, opponents had more yards than the Chiefs. That’s been a problem for Detroit so far this year, allowing 394.7 yards per game.
“Nobody wants to see Patrick Mahomes out there every two minutes throwing the ball,” running back Kerryon Johnson said. “I mean, like come on, man. Nobody for Detroit wants to see that. … We’ve got to do our part. The defense can’t play that many snaps. It’s just not fair. To be a team and putting that much pressure on them.
“We just got to go out there, not play timid but play our game, keep the ball in our hands and give us the best chance to win.”
Get Kerryon Johnson going
In order to have long drives, the Lions will need a run game that works. That’s been one of Detroit’s biggest issues. Almost every player and coach say the same thing, too: They’re close. They truly believe that.
This despite averaging 98.7 yards rushing — and 3.4 yards per carry. Johnson often faced eight-man boxes the first three weeks, making it much more difficult to run, leading to a 2.6 yards per carry average. To have a shot at beating the Chiefs, that needs to be better.
“… A lot of times we’re looking at the film and if a guy would have got a block here or we would gotten a cut there, something like that, it really would have hit,” left guard Joe Dahl said. “We just have to keep improving and working on our fundamentals and it’s going to come through eventually.”
Eventually has to be this week. In four of Kansas City’s five 2018 losses, the Chiefs allowed 119 yards rushing or more. In three of those losses, they allowed at least 170 yards rushing. Opponents also kept the ball moving, all having 29 or more first downs.
So far this year, the Lions are averaging 19.3 first downs a game. A stronger run game would improve that and open up play-action for Matthew Stafford. It could garner confidence for an offense that believes they are close to figuring things out. It can also be demoralizing for an opposing defense.
“No defense wants to be ran on,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to pass for 300. You rush for 200, I mean, no defense wants that to happen. No coach wants that to happen. So it’s just a difference, and when you’re running the ball well, you’re keeping the ball out of the other team’s offensive hands.
“So I think that’s probably the connection there. You keep it out of Mahomes’ hands, you win the game.”
That’s what Detroit is going to try and do Sunday, what teams have attempted to do since the start of last year. It’s just something that’s really, really hard to do — but if it does, it could be a harbinger of good things to come for Detroit.
Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this story.