Sunday, the Detroit Lions (7-3) head to Foxboro to face the intimidating New England Patriots (8-2). After a disappointing performance in Arizona, the Lions are looking to right the ship and maintain their grasp atop the NFC North. The Patriots, however, are on a six-game winning streak that includes 22-point victories over both the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. Most experts aren't giving the Lions a chance in this matchup, but what do the almighty Charts say?
Lions pass offense (12th) vs. Patriots pass defense (17th)
It's pretty clear by now that the Lions passing offense is below average, and the charts support this theory. Matthew Stafford has only had a passer rating above 90 in three games this year, and those were the only games in which he surpassed defensive averages. They are typically putting up a big amount of yards, but their efficiency through the air has been poor.
Detroit ranks 24th in passer rating (85.3), t-14th in yards per attempt (7.3) and t-20th in completion percentage (61.5). Protection continues to be a problem, as the Lions have suffered the sixth-most sacks in the league (31).
The Patriots pass defense has been very streaky this year. After holding their first three opponents well below their averages, they went on a streak of four games where it looked like they couldn't stop anyone through the air. However, recently they've faced two of the best passing offenses in the league and successfully held both well below their passer rating averages.
Overall, the Patriots rank 11th in passer rating allowed (86.2), t-11th in yards per attempt allowed (7.1) and eighth in completion percentage allowed (60.6). Their pass rush is mediocre, as they rank just t-15th in sacks (23).
The Patriots pass defense is not spectacular, but they tend to get the job done. Well-balanced teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals do well against them, while pass-heavy teams like the Broncos and Colts can tally the yards but aren't as efficient.
Player to watch: Eric Ebron. As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots have difficulties covering tight ends. In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Patriots rank 31st in defending tight ends. With the Lions desperately searching for a solution to their struggling offense, it's time to unleash Ebron.
Advantage: Patriots +1. While the Patriots defense isn't smothering, the Lions offense is going through some serious problems right now. Facing a team hitting its stride, at Foxboro, in the cold weather, doesn't seem like the ideal circumstance to turn things around.
Lions run offense (t-30th) vs. Patriots run defense (14th)
WOOOOOOO! The Lions finally had a good performance on the ground last week. Unfortunately, it was wasted on a week in which the Lions' passing game had one of its worst performances of the year. Still, it was nice to see the Lions finally hit over 4.0 a carry for the day, against one of the best run defenses no less. Outside of last week, the Lions' running game remains terrible.
Again, the Patriots defense remains a little hard to figure out. They've ceded over 150 yards four times this year, but they've also held four opponents below 70 yards. Overall, they've held exactly half of their opponents below yardage and yards per carry averages.
The Patriots rank 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.2) and are allowing first downs on 23.5 percent of rushes (21st). They are about as average of a run defense as you can get.
Player to watch: Vince Wilfork. Wilfork's stat line doesn't instill much fear, as he only has one tackle for loss all year. But the defensive tackle's impact goes far beyond his statistics. The 33-year-old remains a force to be reckoned with in the middle of that line.
Advantage: Patriots +1. While the Patriots defense doesn't look too intimidating in any way, it is going to take more than one week of success for me to believe the Lions have turned things around running the ball. Normally, the running game isn't all that important to the Lions' success, but balance on offense is very important against the Patriots. If the Lions cannot find rhythm on the ground, they're going to struggle through the air.
Patriots pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (5th)
This is the marquee matchup of the day. After struggling through the first four weeks of the season, Tom Brady has reemerged as the dominant force he is. The Patriots have surpassed passer rating averages in four of their last six games and yardage averages in six of their last seven.
New England ranks fourth in passer rating (103.3), t-14th in yards per attempt (7.3) and 12th in completion percentage (64.7). Though those numbers remain modest, Football Outsiders actually has the Patriots ranked as the best passing offense in the league.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Lions pass defense looks about average, according to the charts. Five of 10 opponents have managed to outgain their yardage averages against the Lions. However, only two of 10 have managed to significantly outgain their passer rating averages. Detroit has done a good job managing opponents' passing games, but they haven't been quite as dominant as perceived. Four of 10 opponents have managed to meet their passer rating averages against Detroit.
Still, the Lions rank seventh in passer rating allowed (80.8), t-ninth in yards per attempt allowed (6.9) and 18th in completion percentage allowed (63.6). They've also allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the league, which may explain why Football Outsiders has them ranked as the third-best pass defense.
Player to watch: Rob Gronkowski. This is the game of the tight ends. Gronkowski has been on a tear since returning from injury. As Christopher Tomke pointed out earlier in the week, Gronk presents a near-impossible challenge to any team. Even though the Lions have been fairly good against tight ends, they'll have their hands full with Gronk.
Advantage: Draw. When a team's strength goes against another team's strength, predicting an edge either way is a fool's errand. Both of these units are elite, so I just want to sit back and see what happens.
Patriots run offense (13th) vs. Lions run defense (1st)
This is a pretty interesting chart for the Patriots. While they've mostly struggled to meet averages on the ground, they have four outlier games in which they DOMINATED running the ball. This is a testament to how quickly the Patriots can change their offensive identity.
New England ranks t-21st in yards per carry (3.9) and gains first downs on just 21.1 percent of rushes (20th). They aren't much of a home-run-hitting rushing attack, as they only have three rushes of 20+ yards (t-26th) and one rush of 40+ yards (t-11th).
I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Lions' run defense, but it doesn't look like it ever will. Despite losing two of their best defenders against the run to injury (Nick Fairley and Stephen Tulloch), the Lions continue to completely eliminate their opponent's running game.
The Lions are allowing just 3.0 yards per carry (first) and cede first downs on just 17.2 percent of carries (second). They've allowed just four rushing touchdowns (t-second) and three rushes of 20+ yards (t-second). They're pretty good.
Player to watch: DeAndre Levy. Levy has been a big reason why the Lions have been dominant defending the run. He has over 40 more total tackles than anyone else on the team (96 total) and leads the team in tackles for loss, too (10).
Advantage: Lions +1. Last week's Patriots looked unstoppable on the ground, amassing 246 yards at an impressive 5.6 yards per carry. But the Lions' run defense has looked just as unstoppable all season. It's hard to imagine anyone beating this defense on the ground right now.
Weather. The forecast for Foxboro on Sunday is actually pretty good: 51 degrees and sunny. However, the Lions are preparing themselves for the worst, simulating cold-weather situations all week in practice.
Kickers. Though it didn't have an effect last week, the Lions' kicking game remains a concern. I don't think Matt Prater's kick off the uprights last week did anything to qualm those fears. 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 in a row last week after predicting a 20-19 victory for the Lions. I am now 7-3 on the year. In the comments section, David Tokarz's prediction of 12-7 was scary close to the final score of 14-6. His motto is #NoHubris, but you're the champ this week, David:
Here's a big ol' bag of hubris. Treat yo self.
This week's prediction:
The Patriots end up with just a +1 advantage. Many are predicting a huge blowout for New England, with the Lions currently struggling and the Patriots hitting their stride. I don't see things quite the same way. Sure, the Patriots have made great teams like the Broncos and Colts look like bottom-dwellers, but they seem to struggle against some of the better defenses in the league. The Lions have the best scoring defense in the league. The Patriots have faced the third (Chiefs) and fourth (Miami Dolphins) best scoring defenses in the league and lost to both of them. I don't think they'll lose to the Lions this week, but I am not expecting a blowout. Patriots 23, Lions 16.