In a wide-open NFC North, you can’t hide the Lions’ eyes

If there’s any sign that points to the upheaval of an NFC North playing without Packers stars Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre for the first time since 1991, it’s this: The NFL sees a world in which America wants to watch, of all teams, the Lions. They’ll play on Saturday night, Monday night and twice on Thursday night.

SHARE In a wide-open NFC North, you can’t hide the Lions’ eyes
Lions quarterback Jared Goff greets Bears quarterback Justin Fields last year.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff greets Bears quarterback Justin Fields last year.

Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The Lions won three games in 2021, watched former quarterback Matthew Stafford win a Super Bowl with the Rams and featured a coach (“The Kneecap Biter?”) who spoke in phrases ripped off from WWE scripts. For a second consecutive season, they were outscored by 142 points. For a fourth straight season, they finished last in the NFC North.

They were at the bottom of the league, and the NFL treated them as such. When the 2022 schedule came out, the Lions were booked for exactly zero prime-time games.

This year, they’ve been scheduled for four, including the Thursday night season opener at the Chiefs — the most prime of prime-time spots awarded a team that’s not the Super Bowl champion.

If there’s any sign that points to the upheaval of an NFC North playing without Packers stars Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre for the first time since 1991, it’s this: The NFL sees a world in which America wants to watch, of all teams, the Lions. They’ll play Saturday night, Monday night and twice on Thursday night.

“We always talk about, ‘You play your way into prime time, you play your way into big television windows,’ ’’ NFL vice president of broadcast planning Mike North said last week. “And the Lions have done that. . . . They earned it with their play on the field.”

That’s debatable. Yes, the Lions won eight of their last 10 games last season, including the season finale — which was flexed to a night game on six days’ notice — that kept the Packers out of the playoffs. But they finished 9-8 and missed the postseason in a league in which seven of the 16 teams in each conference get a crack at the playoffs.

The NFL’s schedule-makers are gambling the Lions will be relevant again in 2023 — which is quite the bet when you know their history. No team that has been in existence since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger has a worse winning percentage than the Lions’ .411.

No team has won fewer playoff games. In fact, the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1992 — 2½ years before quarterback Jared Goff was born. That remains the team’s only playoff victory since 1958.

They have finished last in the NFC North 10 times since it was created 21 years ago. For the Lions to be better this season than last year, they’d have to win at least 10 games for only the third time since 1996.

They’ve had back-to-back winning seasons once since 1994 and 1995.

Can they do it this year? For the first time in two generations, there’s no monolith standing in their way. With Rodgers wearing Gotham green after last month’s trade to the Jets, the NFC North is wide-open.

The Lions are the betting favorite to win the division. The Vikings are second at about double the Lions’ odds, followed by the Packers and Bears, who are each +350. In no other division do all four teams face such short odds to win.

With no obvious NFC North favorite to tout on TV, the NFL decided to bet on all four — including, historically, the least likely team in the league to have playoff success.

When it comes to planning a schedule, perhaps the NFL is just hedging its bets.

The Packers — even with Jordan Love at quarterback — have five prime-time games scheduled for this season. They have a sixth stand-alone game: Thanksgiving Day in Detroit.

The Vikings, who are coming off a 13-win season in which they somehow were outscored by three points, will be in prime time five times, too. They’ll play a Week 2 Thursday night game — all four NFC North teams will appear on Thursday by Week 5 — and a Week 12 “Monday Night Football” game against the Bears.

The Bears, whose market size practically guarantees prime-time games even when their lousy record dictates otherwise, will play four night games. That doesn’t count Week 1, when they’ll be the late-afternoon Fox national game against the rival Packers — without Rodgers.

“Jordan Love’s first game is going to get a lot of attention,” North said. “More broadly, we’re pretty confident in the brand of the Packers.

“We think that division is going to be competitive.”

The Latest
The 25-year-old catcher, who has outperformed Martin Maldinado in every aspect this season, could see his playing time accelerate as the season goes on.
Hendricks allowed four runs in four innings, lowering his ERA from 12.71 to 12.00.
Terry Anderson was chief Middle East correspondent for the AP when he was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985 by the militant group Hezbollah, who suspected he was a spy. His 1991 best-seller ‘Den of Lions’ chronicles his torture and time in captivity.
Happ probably could have started Sunday’s series finale with the Marlins. The risk, however, wasn’t worth the reward.