Lions defense restores its roar in win over reigning Super Bowl champs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Of all the questions surrounding the Detroit Lions coming into a season brimming with potential, this was the one that needed to be answered fast. Yes, they could score in bunches, and their coach was an eccentric master of motivation. None of that would matter much if the Lions couldn’t keep people out of the end zone. Defense would be the most important thing they’d have to display if all the hype lingering around this team could be taken seriously.

Detroit’s 21-20 victory over Kansas City could easily be written off as a win that had plenty to do with the Chiefs missing two All-Pro players on Thursday night — tight end Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones. It also would be a major mistake to go down that road. The Chiefs still had the best player on the planet in uniform in quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He’s built an entire reputation around manufacturing the kind of magic that the Detroit defense ultimately extinguished inside Arrowhead Stadium.

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The Lions produced a defense last season that ranked among the worst in the NFL. The unit that showed up against the defending Super Bowl champions isn’t going to have those same problems. “The whole game was satisfying because we all feel we’re not overlooked, and we’re playing as a unit,” said Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. “Everybody knows the focal point of this team is defense. It looks good, don’t it? Real good.”

Forgive the Lions for being overly giddy about a season-opening win. They opened last season with a 1-6 start, which was actually a little bit better than the 0-10-1 beginning to their 2021 campaign. A victory like this was essential for a team hoping to make plenty of noise this season. For that defense to play such a huge role made it all the more satisfying.

The Lions want to be known for their gritty, resilient nature, and that type of identity is always best personified by what happens when the opponent has the football. As much as Detroit can grind it out with a sturdy offensive line and productive backs like David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, it also needs to know every game won’t turn into a boat race. Stifling the vaunted Chiefs offense on a night when Kansas City raised its second Super Bowl banner was a huge deal. Kansas City has only lost one season opener since head coach Andy Reid arrived in 2013, and it had averaged 38 points over the previous five victories.

Again, it helped that Kelce couldn’t play because of a hyperextended knee. The Chiefs’ receivers also contributed heavily to Detroit’s cause by dropping countless passes. That still doesn’t change the fact that Mahomes usually destroys opponents who give him the ball and a small deficit to overcome late in the game. His last chance to win this contest came down to him flinging a futile pass downfield on an impossible fourth-and-25 deep in his own territory.

The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player finished with just 227 passing yards, the second-lowest total for him in a season opener. His streak of not throwing an interception in September also ended. “They showed up,” said Lions head coach Dan Campbell in talking about his defense. “They showed up in a big way. At halftime, we talked about cleaning up some of our communication errors. We needed a takeaway and we needed to be much better on third down. We did that.”

This game turned in the second half because of the very things Campbell demanded of his defense when his team trailed 14-7. The Chiefs usually take over games in the third quarter, when they come out of halftime and tack on a quick score to inflate their advantage. This team, the Lions, were the ones making the big play. Rookie safety Brian Branch grabbed a pass that skipped off the hands of Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown with 10:54 left in the third quarter to tie the game.

The Chiefs also have a way of finding their rhythm as the game goes on. However, they couldn’t find any consistency on offense while the Lions began harassing Mahomes. The Lions didn’t allow Kansas City to convert any of its seven third-down opportunities in the second half (Kansas City was five-of-seven in that category in the first half). Even when Mahomes trotted onto the field with just under seven minutes remaining in the contest, the Chiefs offense went nowhere.

This game felt like it could’ve been a shootout before it started. Jones was still holding out to land a massive new contract from the Chiefs while the Lions’ defense was relying heavily on an untested defense with a revamped secondary. The difference was that Detroit really was prepared to back up everything Campbell has been preaching about this bunch. He prides his squad on its mental toughness, and this was the kind of game when younger teams usually find ways to lose.

“I feel like there’s some give and take,” said Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone. “There was some situational football that we could’ve played better but when it came to crunch time, we were able to make the plays and play sound defense. That’s the most encouraging thing. I felt like we were dominant at times, but we can be even better when we clean up some things.”

Gardner-Johnson wasn’t so diplomatic in his assessment of the game. He was one of the key offseason additions for Detroit, a ball-hawking safety who played with Philadelphia in last year’s Super Bowl and a talented New Orleans Saints team before that. He talked about the importance of being physical in this contest and not backing down from the Chiefs. He also emphasized that this isn’t going to be the same old Lions team, a reference to a franchise that has only made three playoff appearances this decade.

“Winners know what winners look like,” Gardner-Johnson said. “And this team is full of winners. Being on teams that have been successful, I’m just happy to be part of a team that wants to go out there and get a W. No matter who’s on the field, what’s on the clock or who’s on the other side, these guys are going to fight. We’re all going to fight.”

The Lions revealed as much on Thursday night. They came into the home of the league’s most dominant team in recent memory and sensed the opportunity to do something impressive. They fell behind early, then rallied and ultimately found a rhythm pounding the football late. None of that happens if their defense doesn’t stiffen and take over in the second half.

Campbell did make the point that this is only one win. He added that he was going to enjoy it for a couple days and move on. The reality is that the way a team wins often says plenty about what it is capable of doing. This one told us something that was impossible to miss: The Lions truly are capable of making good on all their promise.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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