For the third year in a row, the Detroit Lions will head down to Arizona to face the Cardinals. However, this game bears no resemblance to the matchups of the previous two years. The Lions (7-2) enter the game with their best record since 1993. The Cardinals are 8-1 for the first time since 1948 (!!!). Both teams have division foes nipping at their heels, so neither will be taking this game lightly. So which one of these top-seeded NFC teams has the advantage on Sunday?
Lions pass offense (9th) vs. Cardinals pass defense (30th)
Detroit's passing offense had a bit of resurgence last week that perhaps not so coincidentally aligned with Calvin Johnson's return. In fact, when you look at the games in which Calvin was available and at full health (first three weeks and last week against Miami), you can pretty clearly see that the passing offense is better with him than without him. Overall, the offense has been held below yardage averages in just two games this season, but has been held below passer rating averages in five of nine games.
The Lions rank t-21st in team passer rating (87.2), t-12th in yards per attempt (7.4) and 20th in completion percentage (61.6 percent).
Add it all up and you have a modest, but slightly above-average, passing game. It's looking more and more likely that Matthew Stafford will finally have most of his weapons at his disposal (with the exception being Reggie Bush). The return of Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron should only help a Lions passing offense that is looking to hit its stride. On the other hand, the loss of starting right guard Larry Warford for a few weeks will hurt an already struggling offensive line that has allowed the seventh-most sacks in the league.
Don't be fooled by Arizona's 30th ranking; they are a good defense. Only one quarterback has surpassed their passer rating average against the Cardinals. Though Arizona has given up a lot of yards, they have managed to make up for that with 14 interceptions, the most in the league.
Overall, the Cardinals are allowing a passer rating of just 81.3 (eighth), 7.4 yards per attempt (t-15th) and a completion percentage of 62.3 (14th).
Their numbers aren't phenomenal, but for what they lack in statistical forte, they make up with play-making athletes. Their +12 turnover margin is best in the league.
Player to watch: Patrick Peterson. Peterson is one of the most exciting defensive players to watch in the NFL. His matchups against Calvin have always been epic. And if we're lucky, we'll get another amazing photograph of the two on Sunday.
Advantage: Cardinals +0.5. With the Lions nearing full health on offense and the Arizona defense being slightly overrated, it's hard to tell who will win this matchup. If Stafford can last a full four quarters without making a crucial mistake (a big "if"), the Lions will prevail. If Stafford slips up, the Cardinals are fully equipped to take advantage, and they'll make him pay. Arizona's ability to make huge plays on defense gives them the slight edge here, but it could go either way on Sunday.
Lions run offense (31st) vs. Cardinals run defense (3rd)
Yeah, nothing new here. The Lions still have no running game. They looked good for a quarter last week, but that's it.
Detroit is averaging 3.1 a carry, tied for the worst in the league, and they earn first downs on 15.9 percent of their rushes, third-worst in the NFL.
Let's just accept the reality that the Lions' running game is broken beyond repair so that I don't have to keep writing things in this section of the preview. Unless the Lions' running game is visited by a miracle worker this week, from now on this section will simply say, "The Lions' running game still sucks."
The Cardinals have a run defense that would give the Lions' defense a... RUN for their money *dodges tomatoes*. Not one team has surpassed yardage averages against the Cardinals, and no team has significantly outgained their yards per carry average.
Arizona ranks t-fourth in yards per carry allowed (3.4) and eighth in percentage of rushes allowed that earn a first down (18.5 percent). They are good, the Lions are bad. I think you've got it.
Player to watch (if you're a fan of carnage): Travis Swanson. The rookie center-turned-guard will have to take Warford's place at right guard. Though Swanson played relatively well in relief last week, he'll literally have his hands full this week, and it probably won't go well.
Advantage: Cardinals +3. I shouldn't have to justify this.
Cardinals pass offense (13th) vs. Lions pass defense (3rd)
*games in which Drew Stanton started
The Cardinals passing offense has had an up-and-down season. They have outgained yardage averages in every other game this season (good news, they're due to fail this week!). In terms of passer rating, they've met or surpassed averages in five of nine games.
Of course the big news is Carson Palmer is out for the remainder of the year and former Lion (and University of Michigan plaything; sorry, I had to) Drew Stanton will step into his place. Stanton has played in a few games this season with mixed results. With so little data to go on, I will assume Arizona's offense will suffer a little bit, but not much.
Overall, the Cardinals rank 14th in passer rating (91.7) and t-15th in yards per attempt (7.2), but strangely 31st in completion percentage (58.0 percent). Arizona's passing attack is average, maybe slightly below average, with Stanton behind center.
The Lions pass defense continues to be good, but it's still unclear how good. They've held seven of nine opponents at or below passer rating averages and five of nine below yardage averages. Still, in the past six games, they've only held two opponents significantly below passer rating averages.
Overall, the stats look good. The Lions are allowing a passer rating of 79.7 (fifth), 6.6 yards per attempt (t-fifth) and a completion percentage of 63.4 (17th). They also have 26 sacks (eighth) and 10 interceptions (t-seventh).
Player to watch: John Brown. The Cardinals rookie receiver is starting to blow up. In the past three games, Brown has tallied 202 yards and two touchdowns. The Lions have done a good job shutting down teams' No. 1 receiver, but Brown could challenge the Lions' weak secondary depth.
Advantage: Lions +1. The Lions' defensive line may make the difference this week. Ziggy Ansah is starting to finally hit his stride and Ndamukong Suh is creating terror, as usual. Stanton is obviously the big question mark in this matchup, but if he was better than Palmer, he would have been the starter.
Cardinals run offense (29th) vs. Lions run defense (2nd)
Do not adjust your screen; the Cardinals have a running offense that is almost as bad as the Lions. Though they've managed over 100 yards in four games this season, in each instance it was against one of the worst run defenses in the league. They've yet to surpass a defense's yardage or YPC averages in 2014.
Arizona is averaging just 3.2 a carry (29th), and only 16.2 percent of their carries are earning a first down (29th). Arizona's running game still sucks.
And Detroit's run defense is still amazing. They are holding all of their opponents below their averages, and they're holding teams well below their averages. In the past five games, no offense has come within 0.6 yards per carry of their season average.
The Lions are ceding 3.2 a carry (t-first) and allow first downs on 17.9 percent of carries (fourth). The Cardinals are bad and the Lions are good. Et cetera, et cetera.
Player to watch (if you're a fan of carnage): Suh. Everywhere he goes, Suh leaves an impact. As I pointed out earlier, the Cardinals are vulnerable in the middle of their line.
Advantage: Lions +3. I could pretty much copy and paste the same thing from the matchup of the Lions running attack against the Cardinals run defense. Don't expect either team to succeed on the ground on Sunday.
University of Phoenix Stadium. The site of this season's Super Bowl has not been kind to the Lions in the past two years. Believe me, I was there both times. I will not be attending this year, so we can safely assume the curse will be lifted.
Kickers. The Lions' kicking game was a liability again last week. A 42-yard Matt Prater attempt was blocked and nearly returned for a touchdown. That 10-point swing very nearly cost the Lions the game. But the Lions ended up winning, so the superstition will continue: Please don't let the game come down to Prater. Please don't let the game come down to Prater. Please don't let the game come down to Prater.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper dropped its second game of the season and now stands at 7-2 on the year. However, Pride Of Detroit commenters dominated in the prediction game. Overlord Sean Yuille led the predictions off with a 20-17 prediction that was a single point off. Two comments later, we had our first direct hit of the year. BarryStillRules exactly predicted a Lions 20-16 victory and will now be handsomely rewarded.
You win a pair of boxing gloves. I don't know you personally, BSR, so as far as I know, you're the Lions fan who recently agreed to a fight with Brandon Marshall. If that's you, you'll need all the help you can get. So the gloves may or may not be filled with quarters. If you aren't planning to get into a fistfight with any Chicago Bears in the near future, use them against the next person you hear say the words Kellen Moore.
This week's prediction:
The thing I immediately noticed about these two teams is how strikingly similar they are. Both have terrible running games, but dominant run defenses. Both teams' passing offenses are average, while each team has a good pass defense, despite some evidence to the contrary.
But the Lions edged out the Cardinals with a +0.5 advantage. I'm giving Detroit the overall edge here based on the Lions getting many of their offensive weapons back from injury, while the Cardinals lost an important one in Palmer. But this game should be close. These teams are insanely even and strangely alike. This will be another excruciatingly close, low-scoring game. Lions 20, Cardinals 19.