Then word broke Tuesday that tight end Travis Kelce hyperextended a knee and could miss Thursday’s opener against Detroit.
All of it makes a tantalizing opportunity for the Lions a little more possible — walk into Arrowhead Stadium to kick off the NFL season and secure the most significant win the franchise has had this century.
Yes, this century.
Hyperbolic? Absolutely. It's ridiculous to even type, except, go ahead and find a Lions triumph that carried more significance than one that extends last season’s late run of success while legitimizing hopes of a deep playoff run and giving a young team a huge boost of confidence.
It’s not that losing the game would doom Detroit this season. It’s that a prime-time victory against the reigning Super Bowl champions would be about as important as anything the Lions have done in decades.
Remember, this is Detroit. It hasn’t won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1992 (38-6 over Dallas). Its last postseason victory prior to that came in 1957. Since 2000, the Lions have made just three wild-card appearances and in only one of those seasons — an 11-5 team in the 2014 season — was almost anything expected. They promptly lost to the Cowboys.
Maybe there was a victory or two along the way that meant as much as what a victory Thursday would mean, but it’s debatable.
That’s the status of this forlorn franchise. Barry Sanders walked away from football rather than keep playing for the Lions. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson made the same decision. Quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t quit the team, he just begged for a trade, got shipped to the Los Angeles Rams, and immediately won the Super Bowl.
The downtown stadium, Ford Field, opened in 2002 but has hosted just a single playoff game — Super Bowl XL between Pittsburgh and Seattle.
In the middle of last season, the Lions' record since 2000 was 123-235 (.344 winning percentage).
Then Dan Campbell’s crew began to rally, ripping off an 8-2 record to close the season. Detroit just missed out on the playoffs, but capped the season by beating the Packers in Green Bay and denying Aaron Rodgers a wild-card appearance.
That game was probably one of the five most significant victories of the century, even if it was technically meaningless.
If nothing else, it helped fuel the hype train that the Lions carry into this season. General manager Brad Holmes has stocked the team with young talent and the feel-good ending to the 2022 campaign didn’t hurt in free agency.
There is now quality up and down the roster. In a rarity, when the Lions cut players during training camp, other teams actually picked them up. Season tickets sold out for the first time in Ford Field history. When the NFL picked Detroit for the season opener, it was a statement of not just respect for what is possible but perhaps hope for what might come.
That’s the spotlight now on arguably the NFL’s most forgettable franchise.
“Guys are getting excited,” Campbell said of the approaching season. “Coaches too.”
This isn’t a game Detroit must win, or even should win. Even if Kelce is out, Patrick Mahomes is still there, not to mention the bulk of a 13-win Super Bowl championship team. Arrowhead will be as loud as ever, especially as a banner gets raised.
“I’ve played there, coached there, it’s just an unbelievable environment,” Campbell said. “To go on the road to a place like that, I told my guys, ‘Enjoy this, embrace this. This shouldn’t be stressful. Take it all in. Enjoy the sunlight, if you will.’
“I know [the game] is at night.”
“When you're a true competitor, to go on the road in an environment like this, I think it brings the best out in you,” he continued. “… We’ve just got to stay steady, consistent. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”
That last part is the advice for the Lions' season. You can’t overcome 66 seasons of futility and embarrassment in a single game, even one with the entire country watching.
For Detroit, it’s about winning week after week, becoming a competent and then compelling team, challenging for a division title for the first time since the 1993 season and then somehow getting into January and actually advancing.
For most franchises, that’s an annual and reasonable goal.
For Detroit, such potential is so rare that it seems dangerous to embrace. It’s how a season opener could actually mean so much, because the organization has historically accomplished so little.
Thursday is coming though, a rare opportunity coming into focus.
A loss won’t break the Lions. A win, however, sure could propel them.