DETROIT – The last time the Lions played the San Diego Chargers (2011), it ended in a victory lap around Ford Field as Detroit clinched its first playoff berth in over a decade. Matthew Stafford completed 29 of 36 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Lions in a 38-10 shelling of the Chargers.
Four years later, the Lions head to San Diego with a new coaching staff, a new system and a new mindset. But in many ways the goal for the Lions is the same: End a long, empty streak and take the next step as an organization.
In 2011, the Lions' win over the Chargers ended a 12-year playoff drought. This week's matchup could be an opportunity to snap a 17-game losing streak against winning teams on the road.
It's only Week 1, and the Lions' chances to return to the postseason wouldn't be squashed by a loss in San Diego. But the Chargers have finished with a 9-7 record in each of the past two seasons, so it's a golden chance for the Lions to end that road losing streak. That alone makes it an important opening week.
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.
The 17-game streak dates back to when Stafford was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Detroit was coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history and looking for a franchise quarterback to begin the rebuild.
Stafford isn't to blame for all of those losses, but as quarterback, the brunt of the criticism falls on his shoulders. Another strong game against the Chargers defense could put an end to the streak once and for all.
Detroit has certainly given Stafford the weapons to lead an elite offense in his seventh NFL season. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate enter 2015 as the best wide receiver duo in the league after combining for 170 catches, 2,408 yards and 12 touchdowns in their first season as teammates.
On the line, the Lions made a concerted effort to protect Stafford and give him time in the pocket. They used first-round picks on Riley Reiff (2012) and Laken Tomlinson (2015), third-round picks on Larry Warfard (2013) and Travis Swanson (2014) and moved back five spots in the first round of the 2015 draft to acquire Manny Ramirez.
Even the running game has improved. Detroit drafted Ameer Abdullah in the second round to compliment power runner Joique Bell. Abdullah had a strong preseason and figures to be a legitimate home run threat out of the backfield, which would take some of the pressure off of Stafford and the passing game.
If the Lions' running game can be better than last season, the offense will take a huge step forward.
As for the defense, life without Ndamukong Suh begins against the third worst running team from a year ago. Brandon Oliver led the Chargers with 582 rushing yards on 160 carries, but San Diego used a first-round pick and brought in former Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon. Gordon will join Oliver in testing the new-look Detroit line.
The Phillip Rivers-led passing attack is the more dangerous weapon for San Diego. The Chargers ranked 10th in the NFL with 256 passing yards per game last season and Rivers has three solid targets in Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates and Keenan Allen. The Lions' secondary, led by cornerback Darius Slay, will have to contain that passing attack without the benefit of an elite pass rush on the defensive line.
Sunday's opener isn't a must-win for the Lions, but with games against Denver, Seattle and Arizona coming up in Weeks 3-5, they need to get off to a quick start on the road. A loss would make a tricky Week 2 game in Minnesota even more important for Detroit.
LB DeAndre Levy
OG Larry Warford
OG LaAdrian Waddle
WR T.J. Jones
CB Nevin Lawson