As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare to welcome the Detroit Lions for the NFL's opening night showdown, the excitement of a new season and storylines galore heading into the 2023 campaign for the two clubs are palpating simultaneously. On Detroit's side, you have a pulsating optimism that hasn't been found in the Motor City in quite some time heading into head coach Dan Campbell's third campaign with the team. After a 3-13 season in 2021, Campbell led the Lions to an impressive 9-8 turn around season in 2022. With an explosive offense and improved defense heading into 2023, the Lions are primed to make a move towards a division title in an Aaron Rodgers-less NFC North.
On the Chiefs side, we all recognize the 6'6" 310 pound elephant in the room. While Chris Jones contract negotiations continue to get more public and more cryptic at the same time, the team remains without the All-Pro defensive tackle heading into Thursday's opener, which likely means that they will in fact be without him when the game kicks off. I'm no detective, that just seems to be where the continually mounting evidence appears to be pointing.
So, that's a challenge, right? Detroit will trot in an offense that finished 2022 fourth in the NFL in yards per game and fifth in points scored per game. Jared Goff experienced a career resurgence last year in Detroit, providing balance to a trade that the Rams appeared to win going away when they shipped Goff to Detroit in 2021 for Matthew Stafford. The move saw the Rams experience immediate success in winning Super Bowl 56 but appears to have Detroit set up for more long-term success with a more modest Goff contract on the books along with team control over potential young stars like Jameson Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Penei Sewell, and Jahmyr Gibbs. The Rams, on the other hand, appear to be one of the most poorly constructed rosters in the league at the moment.
Detroit certainly brings a unique challenge to the Chiefs in their season opener, but what is new for the defending Super Bowl champions? The previous five seasons (accounting for the entire Mahomes era) have welcomed challenges of all kinds—teams that made playoff runs the previous season and teams that excelled in the season that they kicked off against Kansas City. In 2018 the Chiefs kicked off against the Los Angeles Chargers, a team that finished 12-4 that season before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in the divisional round. 2019 saw the Chiefs welcome the Jaguars to Arrowhead - the lone "bad" opening opponent in the Mahomes era.
In the roaring '20s, the Chiefs' opening week opponents appeared to be fierce on paper but were fairly easily dispatched by Mahomes and the Chiefs. The 2020 season kicked off in a similar fashion that we will begin with on Thursday - a league-wide opener where Kansas City hung a Super Bowl banner, a sight we have no problem getting used to here in the Kingdom. The Chiefs waxed the Houston Texans 34-20 only 8 months after ripping their souls out of their bodies in the Divisional Playoffs. In 2021 the seemingly spunky Cleveland Browns came to town and experienced a similar fate to the Texans a year earlier, an opening week loss to the Chiefs just months after Kansas City defeated the Browns in the Divisional Round in the same building the postseason prior. Then, last season, the Chiefs embarrassed a playoff team from the season before in the Arizona Cardinals in the same building where Mahomes and the Chiefs would later hoist the Lombardi after winning Super Bowl 57.
How many sacks did Chris Jones have in those games? Was the defense a catalyst in those victories? Did the defensive line have success against any of those teams without Chris Jones in the lineup? Well, I'd have to go back and look at snap counts and tape to give you a real answer on that, but the short answer here is: this is something you likely didn't even consistently consider during the course of those games.
While those previous opponents posed threats of their own from an offensive standpoint, the defensive unit Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs will trot out on Thursday will be different from those units for numerous reasons. The first, and most important, is the lack of Chris Jones. But the positive changes in the Chiefs defensive unit are impactful and shouldn't be swept under the rug. The addition of linebacker Drue Tranquill undoubtedly bolsters a linebacking corps that will feature a rising star in Nick Bolton, one of the most underrated sideline to sideline defenders in the league in Willie Gay, Jr., and a more seasoned version of second-year linebacker Leo Chenal. The secondary is littered with young studs. The Chiefs defense, outside of the interior defensive line at the moment, is primed to make an impact in 2023.
But the Lions are bringing some very real bite with them to Kansas City, and without question should not be taken lightly. Goff leads an offense that not only put up points and yards in bunches in 2022, but that added rookies in Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta who were considered at or near the top of their position ranking in the 2023 NFL Draft. Add to that the addition of linebacker Jack Campbell to the defense along with the signing of several veterans on both sides of the ball - including running back David Montgomery and Chiefs fan-favorite safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson - and Detroit is a real threat to make the banner ceremony the only thing that we'll want to remember about this opening night affair.
You can be scared of those things, but I'd always encourage you to remember one thing when it comes to being a Kansas City Chiefs fan: when you have Patrick Mahomes, you have a puncher's chance. Since Mahomes took the reins in 2018, the Chiefs have been underdogs in 12 games. Three of those games Mahomes did not play in, one was Super Bowl 57. For all of the much-deserved glory Mahomes has garnered from his postseason prowess, he also excels on the other bookend of the equation, in season-opening games.
Since 2018, these have been Mahomes passing numbers in Chiefs season openers:
2018 - 15-27, 256 yards, 4 TD
2019 - 25-33, 378 yards, 3 TD
2020 - 24-32, 211 yards, 2 TD
2021 - 27-36, 337 yards, 3 TD
2022 - 30-39, 360 yards, 5 TD
For those tallying up the totals at home, that's 121 for 167 (72.5% completion percentage) for 1,542 yards and 17 touchdowns. Over the course of an entire season, Mahomes would pace for 58 passing touchdowns and 5,243 passing yards if he were to maintain his torrid season opening pace throughout an entire season. That's 7 fewer yards than he threw for last year in his MVP run, and 8 more touchdowns that he's thrown for in an entire season in his career. The Chiefs in those 5 games? 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 13 points per game.
Is it ok to feel unsettled about the Chris Jones situation? At this point, yes. Absolutely. Do we have questions about a young wide receiving corps and how they will gel early in the year with Mahomes, Kelce, and the rest of the Chiefs offense? Of course, we had those same questions about an unproven receiving unit a year ago. Will we all be at the edge of our seats seeing how Javon Taylor and Donovan Smith stack up against an elite pass rusher like Aidan Hutchinson in week 1? Oh, without question.
But the Lavon factor is a very, very real thing, and is the ultimate equalizer for the Chiefs and their fans that no other club has been able to duplicate. Mahomes alone cannot will the Chiefs all the way through an entire regular season and get them to the ultimate destination, but he can certainly put the team on his back and win games along the way. We've seen it time and time again throughout the course of the last five seasons, and we've especially seen it during season openers. Patrick Mahomes has never failed to impress in an opener, so why don't we all just get our affairs in order early in the week this week, sit back, and watch the Mahomes magic unfold?