It’s only Week 3, but for the Detroit Lions, there’s no minimizing the importance of Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.
“I would say it’s a must-win,” running back Adrian Peterson said of the 4:25 p.m. road matchup.
The Lions are 0-2 for the second time in three seasons under Matt Patricia and the fourth time in the last 10 years.
Teams that start 0-2 have made the playoffs just 12% of the time since the NFL went to a 12-team postseason in 1990.
For teams that start 0-3, the odds are even worse. In the last 30 years, just four teams have made the postseason after opening with three straight losses: The 2018 Houston Texans, 1998 Buffalo Bills, 1992 San Diego Chargers and 1995 Lions.
Even with an expanded 14-team playoff in place this season, a loss Sunday would give the Lions, with a coach and a general manager on the hot seat, a virtual death sentence.
“We’re not focused on the playoffs,” Lions receiver Danny Amendola said. “We’re focused on the Cardinals.”
For good reason.
Though they have not had a winning record since 2015, the Cardinals are one of the “it” teams in the NFL this year. They put up a combined 54 points in season-opening wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Washington — two of the best defensive teams in the NFL — and quarterback Kyler Murray is looking to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson as a second-year league MVP.
Murray leads the Cardinals and ranks ninth in the NFL with 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns through two games. His 674 total yards from scrimmage (passing and rushing) are on pace to surpass Mahomes’ MVP campaign of 2018 (5,369 total yards).
“He’s incredible, man,” said Peterson, who like Murray, played his college football at Oklahoma. “Pretty much that’s what we do, Sooner Nation. We produce the best, normally. But that kid right there, man — from coming out of high school he got drafted to go play baseball and was making a couple million while he was in college, so that just goes to show what type of athlete he is in general. But you think about the quarterback position and what he was able to accomplish at the University of Oklahoma, and what he has done so far in the league, he’s a dynamic player.”
Murray made his NFL debut against the Lions last season and has been on a rocket ride ever since.
He engineered an 18-point comeback against the Lions, throwing for 154 yards in the fourth quarter of what finished as a tie game, and was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year thanks to a steady stream of highlight plays.
The Cardinals upgraded Murray’s supporting cast this offseason by trading for All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and Murray has naturally matured as a playmaker. He’s completing 67% of his passes, up from 64% as a rookie, and while sacks (five) and turnovers (two) have been an issue, he’s more comfortable running the ball than he was at any point last year.
“I think this guy got faster and quicker and more explosive in the offseason,” Patricia said. “It’s just amazing to watch him in open space. He’s a smooth athlete. He can really get to top-end acceleration extremely quick, and I think that’s what catches a lot of people by surprise. He can just burst and explode and within two steps he’s at full speed, and then he can stop within a step or two. And I think some of that for the quarterback position, you’re not necessarily used to it. It’s almost like trying to tackle a punt returner in those sort of space plays that he’s able to create.”
The Lions are off to an atrocious start defensively. They rank last in the league against the run and 25th in sacks per pass attempt, and Murray’s mobility will challenge them in a plethora of ways.
In practice this week, the Lions used practice squad skill players Joe Webb, Tom Kennedy and Kerrith Whyte to mimic Murray’s athleticism, and Peterson said he gave his defense a bit of advice.
“He’s dangerous with his arm, but with them legs, man, he, ooh, he’s so explosive, so quick,” Peterson said. “He’s that type of guy that you got to take your shot. If you stop your feet, you’re in trouble. So I’ve been telling guys, ‘Hey, listen, don’t stop your feet, take your shot. Whenever you got him out there and you’re in pursuit, just take your shot, man, cause that’s going to be your best chance to make a play on him because if you stop your feet it’s a done deal-y.’”
Patricia, whose 9-24-1 record as Lions coach gives him a winning percentage (.279) slightly above Rod Marinelli (.208), could be a “done deal-y” himself in the coming weeks if the Lions don’t right their ship.
Players made available by the team after last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers voiced their support for Patricia, and the embattled coach said this week he remains confident in where his team is headed.
“There’s certainly, like I said, a lot of teams in the history of the NFL that have started out not very well that have finished extremely strong, and teams that have started off really well that finished not very good at all,” he said. “That’s part of the NFL. It’s an interesting, difficult season. It’s a grind, and obviously, the biggest trick of all of it is to try to improve as you go through the year and try to get better.”