Early road stretch, rugged finish highlight Lions' 2020 schedule

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The 2020 schedule is here. Now comes the hard part for the Lions and the rest of the NFL: Finding a way to play the full slate of 256 regular-season games the league announced Thursday night in a country that still may be grappling with a pandemic this fall.

In Detroit, it’s a challenge that begins with a Sept. 13 season opener at Ford Field against the Chicago Bears, marking the first time the Lions will open against an NFC North opponent since 2013.

The Lions open their season Sept. 13 at home against the Chicago Bears.

That’s followed immediately by a road trip to Lambeau Field to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 20, so it'll be back-to-back divisional foes for the first time since 2005. That game also kicks off an early-season stretch featuring four road trips in five games over six weeks — in three different time zones, no less. There's a scheduled bye in Week 5 — same as last season for the Lions — but that's a lot of travel out of the gate. 

And if that sounds like a daunting task for head coach Matt Patricia, who along with general manager Bob Quinn is facing an ownership mandate to be a “playoff contender” that is “playing meaningful games in December," a brutal finishing stretch to the schedule may pose an even bigger problem.

The Lions will be home for most of the final month of the regular season, but that gauntlet includes three opponents that made the playoffs last year — Tennessee, Green Bay and Minnesota — as well as a date with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 26 or 27. Merry Christmas, indeed.

"Obviously, we need to get off to a good start, and carry that throughout the season," Quinn said Thursday night on the NFL Network.

Also notable is the absence of any scheduled prime-time games for the Lions, who are coming off a disappointing 3-12-1 season in 2019. Detroit played just one prime-time game last season — the controversial 23-22 loss at Green Bay in mid-October — but hasn’t gone an entire season without any since 2010. 

However, it’s possible that the Lions still will see one added to this year’s schedule, because a couple of those late-season dates are left open-ended. The Week 15 game at Tennessee will be either Dec. 19 or 20 with start time to be announced, and so is the following week’s home game against Brady and the Buccaneers, though Tampa already is one of eight teams with five prime-time games already on its schedule.

For the first time in five years, the Lions won’t host an NFC North opponent for Thanksgiving. Instead, it’ll be Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans visiting for that nationally-televised game, offering a flashback of sorts to the infamous Jim Schwartz challenge-flag game against the Texans in 2012.

The Lions also will finish their season against a team other than Green Bay for the first time since 2015. They’ll host the Vikings on Jan. 3, while the Bears play the Packers.

In addition to the bye week, the weather is usually the first thing NFL players check with the annual schedule release. And while the Lions won’t have to deal with any frozen tundra at Lambeau in mid-September, they do play at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Dec. 6. They're also headed to the Arizona desert in September — just like they did last season — though the retractable roof on the Cardinals' air-conditioned home stadium typically stays closed in the 100-degree heat.

The Lions are playing the Cardinals for the fourth consecutive season and the eighth time in nine years, with six of those games — including the last three — on the road. Last year, they began their season with a 27-27 tie in Glendale

The Lions’ revamped defense, and particularly a secondary featuring Desmond Trufant and rookie first-rounder Jeff Okudah, will be tested early and often in the fall. They’ll face Rodgers and Davante Adams (Green Bay), Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins (Arizona), and Drew Brees and Michael Thomas (New Orleans) in successive weeks before the bye. The rest of the schedule also includes games against Brady, Watson, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Kirk Cousins, among others. 

Former New England Patriots teammates Tom Brady (12) and tight end Rob Gronkowski will visit Ford Field in Week 16, as members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In all, the Lions’ schedule is tied for the fifth-toughest in the league based on opponents’ 2019 winning percentage, with a combined record of 134-121-1 (.525) last season. Five of the teams made the playoffs, including a pair of divisional opponents — Green Bay and Minnesota — that the Lions will face home and away.

The league did scrap its International Series this season due to the coronavirus, likely sparing the Lions a trip to London. They were expected to be one of the Jaguars’ opponents for planned back-to-back games at Wembley Stadium, but Detroit now will travel to play in Jacksonville (for the first time since 2012). More than two-thirds of the league’s teams have played international games since the Lions last trip overseas in 2015.

The Lions’ preseason actually starts with a trip to New England to face the Brady-less Patriots in the second full week of August. Last year, Patricia and his former boss, Bill Belichick, held joint practices before their preseason opener, so a return date in Foxborough could be in the plans. From there, the Lions will host the New York Jets at Ford Field, travel to sweltering Miami to face the Dolphins — and rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — in what’s typically a Week 3 dress rehearsal for the season opener and then finish the exhibition schedule at home against the Buffalo Bills. 

The NFL has maintained its stance that it’s planning to play a 17-week regular season as scheduled this fall — with fans — followed by the playoffs culminating with Super Bowl LV in Tampa on Feb. 7.

“The plan is to move forward as normal to play a full season, a full schedule, until the medical community tells us otherwise,” said Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, on the NFL Network on Thursday night.

But given all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 restrictions and public-health concerns, the league undoubtedly also has contingency plans.

Earlier this week, multiple reports indicated the league's schedule might include an opening four-week slate of interconference games that was both portable and disposable, if necessary. It would have given NFL officials the option of moving those games to January and pushing back the start of the playoffs, or possibly canceling them and playing an abbreviated schedule with minimal effect on division races or playoff tiebreakers. 

That remains a possibility, of course, and it's worth noting that every team plays two home games and two road games in the first four weeks of the current schedule. All 16 Week 2 matchups feature opponents with the same bye week as well, allowing for easier rescheduling of those games. There are no divisional games in Weeks 3 and 4, either. The NFL also can easily compress its postseason from five weeks to four by canceling the Pro Bowl and eliminating the bye week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

A memo from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent to all 32 teams on Wednesday laid out a series of protocols that will be required for teams to reopen facilities as allowed by local and state restrictions over the coming weeks. He also reiterated a request for team officials to refrain from commenting onnvarious scenarios for the fall.

“It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring," Goodell wrote. "Uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses our fans and business partners, complicates the operations of other clubs, and distracts from the careful planning that is needed right now.”

So for now, the league will continue to push forward and project an air of confidence about football in the fall.

The NFL’s Thursday night opener features the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Texans, one of five 2019 playoff rematches. But Week 1 also has another high-profile matchup spotlighting the offseason’s biggest story — Brady bolting New England for Tampa — as the Buccaneers travel to face Brees and the Saints in New Orleans. And the Los Angeles Rams will open their new SoFi Stadium — still under construction — against the Dallas Cowboys in the first Sunday night game.

The following week is capped by a Monday night game in Las Vegas, where the Raiders will make a glitzy debut in their new hometown against the Saints. In Week 3, the Monday night game pits Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on the road against reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.

2020 Detroit Lions schedule


Aug. 13-17: at New England, time TBD (WJBK-TV)

Aug. 20: N.Y Jets, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Aug. 27-30: at Miami, TBD (WJBK-TV)

Sept. 3-4: Buffalo, TBD (WJBK-TV)


Sept. 13: Chicago, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Sept. 20: at Green Bay, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Sept. 27: at Arizona, 4:25 p.m. (FOX)

Oct. 4: New Orleans, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Oct. 18: at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Oct. 25: at Atlanta, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Nov. 1: Indianpolis, 1 p.m. (CBS)

Nov. 8: at Minnesota, 1 p.m. (CBS)

Nov. 15: Washington, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Nov. 22: at Carolina, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Nov. 26: Houston, 12:30 p.m. (CBS)

Dec. 6: at Chicago, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Dec. 13: Green Bay, 1 p.m. (FOX)

Dec. 19-20: at Tennessee, TBD (TBD)

Dec. 26-27: Tampa Bay, TBD (TBD)

Jan. 3: Minnesota, 1 p.m. (FOX)


Twitter: @JohnNiyo