Detroit Lions' 2021 schedule: A tough opener, one primetime game and lots of playoff teams

·4 min read

The NFL schedule makers did not cut Dan Campbell any slack in his first season as Detroit Lions coach.

Campbell and the Lions open the 2021 season against a San Francisco 49ers team that will be one of the favorites in the NFC this fall, and the Lions have three sets of back-to-back road games on a schedule that includes nine games against returning playoff teams.

The Lions open the season at Ford Field, then play three of their next four on the road. They visit the Green Bay Packers for a Monday night game at Lambeau Field in Week 2, their only scheduled primetime appearance this year, and host the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving for the third time in four seasons.

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell answers questions in Allen Park on April 30, 2021 during the NFL draft.
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell answers questions in Allen Park on April 30, 2021 during the NFL draft.

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Both the Packers and Bears made the postseason last year, and the Lions host five other teams coming off a playoff appearance. Their schedule is tied for sixth toughest in the NFL, with a .529 winning percentage in 2020.

Campbell said at his introductory news conference that he planned to build a tough, resilient team, but he acknowledged in a January interview with the Free Press that “patience ... is important.”

The Lions, coming off a 5-11 season and owners of the NFL’s worst defense a year ago, likely will be underdogs in their first five games.

The 49ers went 6-10 last season, but won the NFC in 2019 and return several top stars from injury. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, top defensive end Nick Bosa and Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle missed a combined 32 games last fall.

Garoppolo led the 49ers within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl two years ago and is the favorite to start this fall, though the 49ers traded up to No. 3 in last month’s draft to take quarterback Trey Lance.

The Packers, the Lions’ opponent in Week 2, have their own question at quarterback as reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers has made it known he is unhappy in Green Bay.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) drops back to pass during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) drops back to pass during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

If Rodgers returns, the Packers, who last hosted the Lions in a Monday night game in 2019, will be among the Super Bowl favorites after going 13-3 a season ago.

Lamar Jackson, the 2019 MVP, leads the Baltimore Ravens to town in Week 3, followed by the Lions' first set of back-to-back road games against division foes in the Bears and Minnesota Vikings.

In a scheduling anomaly, the Lions play all three of their road division games in the season’s first five weeks, and all three of their home NFC North games in November-January.

Along with their Thanksgiving game against the Bears, the Lions host the Vikings in Week 13 and close the expanded regular season, now with 17 games, against the Packers at Ford Field.

Among the other scheduling quirks:

• The Lions play back-to-back road games against AFC North opponents — the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, both 2020 playoff teams —in mid-November. They travel to Pittsburgh in Week 10, after the midseason bye, and host the Bears on Thanksgiving four days after visiting the Browns.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield drops back to pass during the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Aug. 30, 2018 in Detroit.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield drops back to pass during the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Aug. 30, 2018 in Detroit.

The Lions have played a road game before Thanksgiving three times in the past four seasons and are 0-3 in the succeeding Thanksgiving games.

• The Lions’ third set of back-to-back road games comes in Weeks 16-17, when they visit the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is the third former MVP quarterback on the Lions’ schedule.

• Though the preseason has been cut to three games this summer, the Lions weirdly have a mid-August exhibition game in Pittsburgh. We don't know how coaches will approach the new shortened preseason schedule, but the Lions and Steelers play in Week 2 of the preseason, which could serve as the new dry run for the regular season.

• The Lions visit the Los Angeles Rams in Week 7 for what is probably the most anticipated game on their schedule: a reunion with former quarterback Matthew Stafford. First-year general manager Brad Holmes traded Stafford — the Lions’ all-time leading passer — to the Rams for Jared Goff and three draft picks in January.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff stands on the sideline at the Coliseum during a win over the San Francisco 49ers on the final day of the 2018 regular season.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff stands on the sideline at the Coliseum during a win over the San Francisco 49ers on the final day of the 2018 regular season.

• Goff, a native of northern California, is 15-10 against NFC West teams in his career, with seven of those wins coming against the Cardinals. In eight games against his hometown 49ers, whom he should make his Lions debut against, he is 3-5 and averages 197.5 passing yards per game, fifth-lowest of all the teams he’s faced.

• Thirteen of the Lions’ 17 games are scheduled for 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. starts, though games can be flexed to primetime windows on a limited basis in Weeks 5-10 and fully in Weeks 11-18. Along with their Monday night game against the Packers, the Lions have late-afternoon starts against the Rams, Broncos and Seahawks. Four of the Lions’ five post-bye road games — against the Browns, Steelers, Broncos and Seahawks — could present trouble as inclement weather games.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' schedule 2021: Nothing easy for Dan Campbell