The Detroit Lions continue their trek to the playoffs this week as they face their divisional foes, the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are still mathematically alive in the playoff race, but their odds are nearly zero. Last time the two faced off, the Lions managed a pretty definitive victory in Minnesota. However, the Vikings and Lions are both riding two-game winning streaks, so the game could be more competitive than expected. Let's see how the charts see things.
Lions pass offense (9th) vs. Vikings pass defense (6th)
Are the Lions finally hitting their stride, or are they just the beneficiary of facing weak pass defenses? The charts are a bit inconclusive. It's true that the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have some pretty poor defenses, but the Lions pretty handily outgained both of those teams' defensive averages. I'm not ready to anoint the Lions pass offense as "fixed," but they have taken major steps in the right direction, and there is certainly reason for optimism.
Detroit continues to slide up the rankings in the major offensive passing stats. They rank 18th in passer rating (88.0), t-12th in yards per attempt (7.4) and 21st in completion percentage (61.7). Pass protection continues to be a problem; the Lions have allowed the seventh-most sacks in the league with 39.
The Vikings pass defense has been very average all year. In 13 games, five teams have outgained their passer rating average, four have met their average and four have failed to meet their average. However, in terms of yardage, the Vikings have allowed only four teams to outgain their season average.
Minnesota ranks 20th in passer rating allowed (91.8), 16th in yards per attempt allowed (7.3) and 25th in completion percentage (65.7). They do have the third-most sacks in the league with 38.
In the previous game, the Vikings definitely won this matchup, holding Matthew Stafford to just 155 net yards and one touchdown while recording four sacks. However, Calvin Johnson did not play in that game, and the Lions' offense was still finding its legs.
Player to watch: Everson Griffen. Griffen has had a breakout season in 2014. He leads the team with 12.0 sacks and ranks sixth in the league in that stat. Griffen had one sack in the previous matchup with the Lions and has only gotten better since then.
Advantage: Draw. This will be a good test to see whether the Lions' pass offense is finally for real. While the Vikings are not a dominant pass defense, they are -- at the very least -- respectable. I highly doubt the Vikings will hold Stafford in check like the last game (especially with Calvin back), but I would be equally surprised if Stafford went off for 300+ yards and a 100+ passer rating.
Lions run offense (29th) vs. Vikings run defense (23rd)
The Lions running game is still crappy, but maybe slightly less crappy lately. They've managed 90 or more yards on the ground in each of their last four games. In the previous nine games, they only reached that mark twice. But considering the poor run defenses they have faced recently, that's not all that much of an accomplishment.
Detroit is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry (30th) and is only gaining first downs on 16.9 percent of rushes (29th). There is still a long way to go for this unit to become respectable.
The Vikings have had similar struggles on the defensive side of the ball. Only two opponents all year have failed to gain 100 yards, and only four of 13 have failed to reach their YPC average against the Vikings.
The raw statistics aren't very pretty, either. The Vikings are allowing 4.4 yards per carry (t-21st) and cede first downs on 22.5 percent of carries (19th).
In the previous matchup, the Lions failed to meet the Vikings' defensive averages, but they managed to outgain their own rushing averages. Joique Bell, who will likely be carrying the load again this week, had a respectable 74 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per carry against the Vikings.
Player to watch: Bell. Joique has received the bulk of the carries all season, and with Reggie Bush continuing to nurse an ankle injury, it will be up to Bell again this week. Over the past four weeks, he has been averaging 76.8 rushing yards per game at 4.1 yards per carry.
Advantage: Vikings +0.5. Though there is some hope for the Lions run offense this week, it is unlikely to result in anything more than 100 total yards or so.
Vikings pass offense (30th) vs. Lions pass defense (10th)
Though Teddy Bridgewater has enjoyed a few decent games lately, the Vikings' pass offense has been pretty awful all year. They've only outgained opponents' pass defense averages three times all year in terms of yardage and four times in terms of passer rating. They've been held below 200 net passing yards in nine of 13 games this year, including their game against the Lions, in which they were held to their third-fewest passing yards all season.
The Vikings rank 29th in passer rating (75.8), t-29th in yards per attempt (6.5) and t-24th in completion percentage (60.0). As I mentioned earlier in the week, a big part of their struggles is pass protection. The Vikings have allowed 40 sacks this year, sixth-most in the league.
The Lions' pass defense remains unspectacular, but above average. They've held six of their last eight opponents below their passer rating averages. They've been much less successful in terms of yardage, holding just six of 13 opponents below their yardage averages. Still, they've been pretty impressive this season and well above expectations.
Detroit ranks fifth in passer rating allowed (80.8), t-seventh in yards per attempt (6.7) and 19th in completion percentage (63.6). Much of the Lions' success has been based on big plays on defense. The Lions rank seventh in sacks (35) and have the second-most interceptions in the league (17).
The last time these two teams met, Bridgewater couldn't get anything going through the air. He managed just 143 net yards and threw three interceptions while getting sacked eight times. It was arguably Detroit's best defensive performance all year.
Player to watch: Ziggy Ansah. Ansah had 2.5 sacks in the previous matchup between the two teams and looked dominant against veteran Matt Kalil.
Advantage: Lions +2. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Minnesota wins this matchup. While Bridgewater has started to look a little better, the Vikings' offensive line continues to look terrible. Last week, Josh McCown had a miserable day against the Lions defense, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing happen to Bridgewater on Sunday.
Vikings run offense (13th) vs. Lions run defense (1st)
The Vikings running game has been respectable all season despite missing Adrian Peterson and losing rookie stud Jerick McKinnon to injury for the year. They've surpassed the defense's YPC allowed average in seven of 13 games and yardage average in five of 13. They've certainly lost a bit of their explosiveness, but they remain an above-average running team.
The Vikes rank t-eighth in YPC (4.5) and gain first downs on 20.8 percent of carries (22nd). Their overall stats may be more impressive if they weren't falling behind quickly in games. They are only averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, which is 20th in the league.
I have officially run out of adjectives to describe the Lions' run defense's dominance across the league. Just look at that beautiful chart.
Detroit is allowing just 3.0 yards per carry this year, which is 0.5 less than any other team in the league. They've yet to allow a rush of 40+ yards this year, and they are allowing first downs on the just 16.0 percent of rushes, which is also first in the league.
Player to watch: Ndamukong Suh. This may be Suh's last game in Detroit as a member of the Lions, so he'll likely be extremely motivated to send the Detroit crowd home happy. Just look what he had to say when asked how much he'd miss Detroit if this were his last game there:
"I’m not going to really answer that question," he said. "It’s not something that I look forward to or having to deal with."
That is just some warm, fuzzy love from the big man.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. With teams starting to just give up at attempting to run against the Lions, it's hard to imagine a beat-up Vikings team finding any success on the ground.
Home-field advantage. The Lions have only lost one game at home all season (a game I refuse to acknowledge actually happened). However, this game will be a little different than the previous seven. The Lions will have the extra advantage of having yours truly in attendance. This is the sort of x-factor that you won't be able to see on any stat sheet or advanced metrics website. Yet the effect is undeniable. Good luck, Vikings.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper moved to 10-3 on the year after the Lions defeated the Buccaneers 34-17. In the comments section, ATL Lion nearly perfected his prediction with an impressive 35-17 guess. I'm going to assume ATL Lion is from Atlanta, which is NFC South territory. So here is your NFC South-themed prize:
Congrats on winning the official NFC South championship trophy. You are certainly more deserving than any team in that division.
This week's prediction:
Detroit comes out with a pretty decisive +3.0 advantage. I think the Lions match up fairly well against the Vikings. Minnesota's few strengths (run offense) match up pretty well with the Lions' strengths (run defense). Additionally, it's hard to imagine the Vikings putting up many points in this game. Detroit held Minnesota to just three points last time around, and although the Vikings have been playing a little better lately, I don't expect much difference in this matchup in Detroit. Lions 27, Vikings 10.