The decisive play in the Lions' wild, shootout win over the Chargers -- a 41-38 nonstop thrill ride -- was a perfect microcosm of this Detroit team. After picking up 8 yards on third down, Dan Campbell's crew stared down a fourth-and-2 in a tie game just inside Riley Patterson's field goal range. There would have been a choice to make, but there was never any consideration to kick.
Campbell unflinchingly left his offense on the field, Jared Goff hit Sam LaPorta with a dart for 6 yards that picked up a first down, moved the Lions into a much more manageable field goal range and -- most importantly -- also allowed them to bleed the rest of the time remaining off the clock before kicking a walk-off field goal.
Jim Nantz and Tony Romo noted the similarity to Bill Belichick's fourth-and-2 against Peyton Manning and the Colts more than a decade ago and how Belichick's logic involved being unable to slow down the Indy offense and wanting to be in control of the game clock.
There was certainly a sense of that for Campbell and Detroit, with Justin Herbert and the Bolts running some kind of modified hurry-up style offense that gave the Lions defense fits all afternoon. The big-play back-and-forth battle between Goff and Herbert shouldn't tell us a ton about the quality of these two defenses per se; it was just an incredible performance from two high-end quarterbacks.
Campbell definitely believes in his defense, but he has unquestioned faith in Goff and that offense and has made it abundantly clear he plans to be aggressive in the way he coaches. He has lived up to his word on that one and it was especially true on Sunday in Los Angeles, with Campbell going for it a whopping FIVE TIMES on fourth down.
Brandon Staley didn't back away from aggression either -- the Chargers went for it three times. The two teams combined to convert seven (!) of those eight fourth-down attempts. The only fourth down they didn't get was the Lions going on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, a no-brainer spot to go and a pretty good pressure effort by the Bolts.
This was the Chargers' 100th one-score game in the last 10 years, as noted by Nantz on CBS. I'm not sure what their record is in those, but I'd wager a healthy amount it's pretty ugly. The loss -- another one at home in front of tons of visiting fans -- drops them to 4-5 and puts them in a precarious position when it comes to the postseason.
Detroit is in a polar opposite situation, moving to 7-2 and making a claim to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. I got a lot of pushback when I penciled them for a trip to Las Vegas during our midseason reboot of our picks because the idea of the Lions winning a championship is, well, pretty crazy.
But if you put Detroit in a different uniform I don't think people would flinch at the notion. Goff's been to a Super Bowl before and has a legitimate pedigree. The defense has played extremely well in spots, particularly against the run. The pass catchers are flying under the radar.
And Campbell is the type of leader who gets the most out of his players. He's changed the identity of this team and molded it in his image.The Lions handled this version of their rebuild in a very patient and focused manner and it's paid dividends with a breakout season in 2023. There's a long way still to go but everything we've seen from this team, coupled with the thin, top-heavy nature of the NFC, should absolutely make you believe the Lions can be the latest longtime loser to climb the mountaintop.
Hand him the hardware
The 2023 Offensive Rookie of the Year race looks like it might be over before it really got going. And maybe we shouldn't just be handing C.J. Stroud that award ... because he might be worthy of the MVP conversation just nine games into his NFL career.
Houston's rookie signal-caller somehow managed to top last week's record-breaking performance on Sunday, when he went on the road and beat the Bengals straight up, as a touchdown underdog, in a hostile environment, against a surging Joe Burrow and a high-flying Bengals offense.
Even with no Tee Higgins, the Bengals were cooking with gas, piling up 27 points with long shots to Ja'Marr Chase and Burrow peppering Tyler Boyd with targets. The Texans got down a touchdown early but Stroud never let his team get out of the game. It would have been pretty easy to do so given how explosive Cincy can be, but Stroud, once again, maintained his composure and continued to deliver the football to a young, unheralded group of receivers who he's been raising up week after week.
The loss to the Panthers feels like it happened a decade ago on a different planet. Since then, Stroud's become a -1000 favorite to win OROY and has slipped into the MVP discussion at 40-1. Stroud, Devin Singletary and Noah Brown all exploded against the Bengals, as the Texans became the first team to have a 350-yard passer, a 150-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver in the same game since the Colts in 1998 when Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk and Torrance Small did it.
Stroud, who finished with 356 yards, became just the second rookie quarterback ever (Cam Newton was the other in 2011) to throw for 350 yards in back-to-back starts.
A rookie quarterback *likely* isn't going to win the award. We could see him hit a rookie wall or the Texans simply not win enough games to allow him to make a move that high up the board.
But the Texans are not some frisky, feel-good story. They're a legit playoff contender. Drafting Stroud is the biggest reason why.