If "Sunday Night Football" was any indication, prime-time NFC North battles will bein 2018.
A day later, in the first of two season-opening "Monday Night Football" contests, we'll at least have one NFC North team in the mix.
The Detroit Lions will kick off their 2018 season against the New York Jets, and the consensus about their first game (7:10 p.m. EDT, ESPN, ESPN2) is about as firm as Sunday night's second-half lead by the Chicago Bears -- in other words, not very. The Jets finished 2017 at 5-11 in the cellar of the AFC East and will open this year with a rookie starting at quarterback, but Detroit isn't exactly an overwhelming favorite as it begins its own season under the direction of a rookie head coach.
Here, we take a glimpse at Monday's showdown and why each side has reason to believe it can start 1-0, then we predict just how the prime-time affair will unfold:
Why the Jets can win
Sam Darnold may be a rookie, and a turnover or two may be inevitable in his first NFL start -- against a Matt Patricia defense and on a national stage, no less. But he's also already showcased a lot of the poise and movement that convinced the Jets to take him No. 3 overall in April -- enough that Patricia should be worried if someone other than Ezekiel Ansah and Darius Slay can't make big plays Monday night. Ansah could be in for a big game up front, and Slay rakes in picks, but the Lions defense was otherwise so-so in the preseason. If Darnold hits Robby Anderson for a big-gainer or just milks the side of the field where Slay is not, the Jets and a mobile Darnold are more than capable of keeping Detroit on its heels.
If Darnold himself isn't getting the job done, then the Jets' running backfield just might. The Lions invested in their front four after a porous finish to 2017, but questions remain. On paper, New York's backs aren't particularly inspiring -- Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell headline the group. But the Jets struck gold in the preseason by balancing the ground game with the spry pocket maneuvering of Darnold and now-departed backup Teddy Bridgewater. If they establish the run vs. Detroit, which is a very real possibility, they will lighten Darnold's burden, keep the ball out of Matthew Stafford's hands and keep the score low -- which is exactly how they can win.
Why the Lions can win
The Jets have been stuck in the basement of the AFC East, finishing no better than third in four of their last six seasons, but the Lions really haven't been much better. They've made it to the playoffs three times in their last seven years, going one-and-done each time, and even Barry Sanders admits "Trumaine Johnson improves New York's secondary overnight, he should find a couple big plays with Marvin Jones and Golden Tate returning out wide." for them to keep up with the division in 2018. And yet there is something positive to take away from Detroit's woeful stretch: They enter with largely the same core of playmakers -- a group that should give the Jets trouble. Protected in the pocket or not, Stafford is a good, veteran arm, and unless
Then you've got the new pieces. Patricia is the big one, and while he's new at this head coaching thing, he's not new at scheming up ways to shut down the Jets thanks to his time in New England. Like New York, the Lions can also win on the ground. Stafford has been forced to carry Detroit on his back for far too long, but this year, finally, the team appears to have an able stable of backs. Between LeGarrette Blount, rookie Kerryon Johnson and receiving threat Theo Riddick, there's enough juice for the Lions offense to fire on all cylinders, even if the preseason was ineffective. Couple that with Patricia's plans on "D," and Detroit should have all the ingredients to outdo Darnold in front of its home crowd.
Lions vs. Jets prediction
Would it be stunning if Sam Darnold stole the spotlight and went all gunslinger to steal one from Detroit? Absolutely not. In fact, this writer's gut feeling is that there's so much suggesting the Lions should be able to win that New York seems poised for an upset.
Everything else points in favor of Detroit, though. Darnold is going to win games, and he's going to headline the highlight reel, and the Jets just might be close in record to the Lions by season's end anyway. But Stafford is the proven man here, and with a revamped supporting cast in the backfield, he should be able to capitalize on a takeaway or two to help the Lions start with a "W."
The pick: Lions 28, Jets 17