NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 04: Quarterback Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions looks to pass against the New Orleans Saints in the third quarter at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 4, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
We've waited 12 years for this moment, and it's almost here. The elusive playoffs. Though last week has left a bad taste in our mouths, focus has shifted to the deadly New Orleans Saints. The Saints are playing at an extremely high level and have literally been unbeatable at home. The Detroit Lions, too, are hitting their stride, especially on offense (averaging over 35 points in their past four games).
The two teams faced off in early December, with the Saints holding off a late comeback from the Lions. Statistically speaking, the two teams played a nearly identical game. The Saints had 338 yards passing and 100 rushing; the Lions had 379 passing, 87 rushing. The Saints averaged 7.2 a play, Lions 6.8. The biggest difference was penalties. The Lions had 11 for 107 yards, while the Saints only had three for 30.
So are the Lions doomed to stick with the Saints only to have another letdown? Will the surging Saints blow the Lions out of the water on their way to another Super Bowl run? Or will the Lions shock everyone and send the Saints home for the second consecutive wild-card weekend? All that, AND MORE, on the first ever Lions Playoff Edition of "On Paper!"Lions Pass Offense (4th) vs. Saints Pass Defense (30th)
There's no question: Matthew Stafford is playing his best professional football right now. He's thrown for a passer rating of 95+ in seven of his last nine games and five consecutive weeks. This incredible streak started in New Orleans, where Stafford had an extremely effective day. Unfortunately, penalties and red zone woes held the Detroit offense to only 17 points on that day. Against the Saints, Stafford utilized his checkdowns often, completing 17 of his 31 passes to running backs and tight ends. Still, the receivers had excellent days. Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Titus Young combined for 13 catches and 222 yards. In short, the Lions pass offense is firing on all cylinders right now, and they didn't have any trouble against the Saints the last time the two faced off.
The Saints' 30th ranking is based purely on yards and you can see that with the chart. They have allowed 10 of 16 opponents to surpass their season yardage averages. However, the Saints have held 10 of 16 below or at their passer rating averages. Overall, the Saints are giving up an average passer rating of 86.4, which puts them 22nd in the league.
Much is made of the aggressiveness of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. His constant blitzing supposedly strikes fear in the opponent's quarterback. However, the Saints have only managed 33 sacks this season, which is T-19th most. The first time around, Stafford was sacked three times, but it hardly slowed down the Lions.
Overall, the Lions offense is playing too well for the Saints to stop them right now. The biggest key to this matchup will be the Lions in the red zone. Although the Saints are apt to give up plenty of yards, they are only giving up 21.2 points per game (13th best). If the Lions get seven instead of three every time they are in the red zone, it will make their lives a lot easier. Lions +2.5.
Lions Run Offense (29th) vs. Saints Run Defense (12th)
The Lions have failed to hit the century mark in the running game since before they last faced the Saints. The good news is it hasn't really mattered. The Lions are 3-2 in the past five games and absolutely dominated the Chargers without a scent of a running game. The Lions offense can be very prolific without the use of a running game. Still, it would be nice on third-and-short to have the option of a running play.
The Saints have a pretty average run defense. They've held exactly half of their opponents below their yardage average, but only three below their yards per carry average. Not surprisingly, the Saints are T-29th in yards per carry allowed at 5.0 a carry (same as Lions). The reason for their high ranking in yardage is that opponents don't run the ball against the Saints. In fact, the Saints defense has faced the least amount of rushing plays in the entire NFL.
Last time the two teams faced, the Lions performed slightly under their season averages, but still averaged a respectable 4.0 a carry. Most teams abandon the run to try and keep up with the Saints offense, and I can see that happening again this week. Therefore, this aspect of the game is unimportant. Draw.
Saints Pass Offense (1st) vs. Lions Pass Defense (22nd)
In a season where their quarterback obliterates the regular season passing yardage record, it's not all that surprising to see that the Saints passing offense has surpassed their opponents' defensive yardage averages in every game this season. But just as impressively, Drew Brees has thrown for a passer rating of 95+ in eight straight games and 13 of 16 games overall.
Last time the two faced, the Saints destroyed the Lions' defensive averages. Specifically, Jimmy Graham had a big day, hauling in eight catches for 89 yards and six first downs. The Lions mostly tried to cover Graham with a safety, but to no avail. Of course, this week, the Lions will have their best safety, Louis Delmas, available. But whether he can handle all that Graham offers has yet to be seen.
Lions fans were in full panic mode after last week. The Lions allowed backup Matt Flynn to put up a franchise-high 480 yards and six touchdowns last week. If the Lions can't stop a quarterback with two career starts, how will they be able to stop a future Hall-of-Famer and the most accurate passer in the game? Well, there are a couple reasons to be optimistic. First, the Lions held the Saints very close to their averages the last time the two met. The Saints "only" managed 342 yards and 31 points. Secondly, the Lions did so without the services of their #1 safety (Delmas), cornerback (Chris Houston) and defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh). All three players are expected to be back this week.
Still, it's hard to completely ignore what happened last week and not be fearful of the mighty Drew Brees. Outside of stopping Graham, the Lions must be able to generate pressure (specifically from the interior of the line) in order to win this matchup. Nick Fairley showed how effective that can be in stopping the Saints the last time the two played. Fairley had a dominant first quarter before he was taken out of the game. The Saints only scored three points that quarter. This is a really tough matchup to put a number on, because we don't know what defense we will see, but the one certainty is that Brees is really, really good. Saints +3.
Saints Run Offense (6th) vs. Lions Run Defense (23rd)
The Saints lost the services of Mark Ingram after the Lions game, yet the running offense has flourished without him. Chris Ivory has taken over the bulk of the carries and has averaged 72 yards and 5.0 a carry in his last four games.
The last time the two faced, the Saints failed to meet the Lions' defensive averages and the Saints running game was a non-factor in the game (although the Saints did have a rushing touchdown).
Detroit has picked it up in their run defense in the final stretch of the season. Only one of their past eight opponents surpassed their season average in rushing yards (and only two of eight surpassed their yards per carry average).
The Saints running game is an underrated part of their offense. It is the real deal. Besides ranking seventh in rushing yards, they also rank T-4th in yards per carry (4.9). Though it wasn't a factor in the Saints' win over the Lions in Week 13, it is something to look for, because the Saints do have a statistical advantage here. Saints +0.5.
The Saints squeak out with a +1.0 advantage. I am expecting a much closer game than the Vegas line is suggesting (Saints -10.5). Of course, given the high-scoring nature of both teams, the final point-differential of the game may not be representative of how close the game really was (see: the last game between the two teams).
In order to beat the Saints, Stafford must do the near-impossible: out-duel Brees. But, in their previous matchup, Stafford outgained Brees (408 to 342), had nearly the same completion percentage (70.5 to Brees' 72.2) and the yards per attempt were almost exactly the same (9.3 to Brees' 9.5). The difference was in touchdowns. Stafford only managed one, while Brees reached pay-dirt three times.
But ... you know what ... a +1 advantage isn't enough for me. I'm not going to claim that "I have a feeling ..." or this Lions team is "destined to win." I've never liked those kinds of justifications for picking a team. I'm just going to say that the Lions clearly have a chance to win this game, and I really, really want them to. Lions 31, Saints 28.