The Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints face off for the third time in four years. Last year, the Lions won a thriller, erasing a 13-point deficit with less than six minutes left in the game. The Saints won the previous matchup, wild card game in which the Saints offense dominated the day.
This year, the stakes will be much lower than those two games. The Lions (4-9) are officially eliminated from postseason contention, while the Saints (5-8) are perilously close to being eliminated.
Here's a closer look at the matchup:
Lions pass offense (19th) vs. Saints pass defense (32nd)
The Lions pass offense took step back last week, after Matthew Stafford could only muster up one offensive touchdown in the first 55 minutes of the game. Though the Lions have been better throwing the ball down the stretch, the best compliment you could give them at this point is average. They have surpassed defensive averages in passer rating in five of 13 games, were held below those averages in five games, and met averages in three games.
Detroit ranks 19th in passer rating (88.6), 26th in (my favorite stat) yards per attempt (6.8) and t-12th in completion percentage (64.2 percent). They still struggle with pass protection, having allowed the eighth-most sacks in the NFL (35).
But Stafford has been much better in the past five games after a disappointing opening eight games. Before the bye, Stafford had thrown 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Since then, he's thrown another 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
The Saints pass defense is the worst in the league, and this is pretty much indisputable. Every quarterback has thrown for a passer rating of 80 or more, and each opponent has either matched or surpassed their yearly average at QB ranking.
New Orleans has been a little better since firing Rob Ryan, their defensive coordinator, but this is still a poor unit. They rank 32nd in passer rating (114.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.5), and 28th in completion percentage (66.7 percent). They've also given up 36 passing touchdowns, seven more than anyone else in the league, and intercepted the second-fewest passes in the NFL (6). They are the worst.
Player to watch: Theo Riddick. The Saints defense is especially bad at defending tight end and running backs in the passing game, ranking 32nd and 30th respectively in defensive DVOA. The Lions may not have been able to get Calvin Johnson going lately, but the Theo Riddick Hype Train is chugging along nicely.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. The Lions offense has only really had two explosive games all year (Eagles and Bears), but there's no reason the Lions cannot repeat those performances against the Saints. the only mitigating factor here is New Orleans may finally be turning things around with their new defensive coordinator.
Lions run offense (29th) vs. Saints run defense (27th)
Detroit's running game is not a huge threat by any means, but they've finally pulled themselves away from the atrocity that averaged 48.8 rushing yards a game through five weeks. They've gained over 100 yards in four straight games, but on a yards per carry basis, they're still performing below average.
The Lions rank t-26th in yards per carry (3.7) and 31st in percentage of carries earning first downs (18.1 percent). They are still without any carries of 40+ yards and their four rushing touchdowns are the third-fewest in the league.
Luckily for the Lions, the Saints run defense is almost as bad as their pass defense. It's to be expected that a team that falls behind so often gives up a lot of rushing yards, but the real concerning part for New Orleans is the amount of yards they are giving up on a per carry basis. Every single opponent has rushed for at least 4.0 yards per carry and the Saints have only held two opponents significantly below their YPC yearly average.
New Orleans ranks last in YPC allowed (5.0) and 28th in percentage of carries allowed that earns first downs (24.1 percent). They have ceded the second most rushes of 20+ yards (14) and tenth most rushing touchdowns (10).
Player to watch: Larry Warford. Warford has been quiet all year, but after some early season struggles, he has been much better at blocking for the run in the past four weeks. If he can continue his dominance through the end of December, the Lions just may have an acceptable running game to finish out the season.
Advantage: Lions +0.5. After the first half of the season, I didn't think I'd ever be giving the Lions an advantage in this matchup in 2015, but with Detroit slightly trending up and the Saints defense one of the worst in the league, I expect the Lions to reach 100 yards on the ground for the fifth straight game.
Saints pass offense (8th) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)
Contrary to reports in 2014, Drew Brees is still Drew Brees. And a Brees-led offense is always one to worry about. The Saints have outgained the defense's passer rating averages in eight of 13 games, and yardage averages in nine of 13. As long as Brees is healthy and behind center, New Orleans will continue to have one of the most potent passing offenses in the league.
The Saints are averaging a passer rating of 97.8 (fifth), are averaging 7.7 yards per attempt (t-sixth) and completing 68.8 percent of their passes (second). New Orleans' pass protection has been average, allowing the 16th-most sacks in the league (30).
The Lions' pass defense revolution continues. In the past five games, only one opponent has outgained their passer rating average against Detroit. This was after seven of eight opponents were able to do so to open the season. Detroit has also allowed under 200 net passing yards in four of their past six games. Though part of that is due to weak opponents, that is still an impressive feat in the NFL these days.
Overall, the Lions defense continues to climb in league rankings. They are 29th in passer rating allowed (101.2), t-23rd in yards per attempt (7.7) and 31st in completion percentage (68.3). While those numbers are still very low, they are all trending in the right direction.
Player to watch: Ben Watson. As always, Christopher Tomke did a great job breaking down the opponent. Christopher broke down how Watson has neatly replaced Jimmy Graham and enjoyed a resurgence in his career.
Advantage: Saints +1. The Lions have had mixed results against some of the best passing games this season. They were able to hold the Raiders and Packers in check (one stupid play excluded), but the Chargers, Broncos and Seahawks were all pretty successful against Detroit. Of course, the big difference there is when those games happened. Detroit hasn't truly been dominated through the air since the bye week. But they also haven't played an offense like New Orleans.
Saints run offense (15th) vs. Lions run defense (15th)
New Orleans doesn't like to run the ball. They have the 12th-fewest rushing attempts in the league. As a result, the Saints have only surpassed a defense's rushing yards allowed average three times this year. However, on yards per carry basis, they've outgained those averages five times.
The Saints rank t-23rd in yards per carry (3.8) but are surprisingly efficient at converting first downs on the ground, moving the sticks on 24.8 percent of carries (t-fifth).
Detroit had a major setback last week, after accumulating one of the best run defenses in the league over the past month or two. Todd Gurley blew up the Lions defense for 140 yards and two touchdowns on his own at 8.8 yards per carry. Yikes.
Again it was the Lions' propensity to allow long runs that did them in last week. They've now allowed the most rushes of 40+ yards on the ground (five) and third most rushes of 20+ yards (12). Long runs aside, the Lions still rank t-17th in yards per carry (4.2) and 16th in percentage of rushes allowed that earn first downs (22.3 percent).
Player to watch: Tim Hightower. With the Saints leading rusher, Mark Ingram, sidelined for the rest of the year, Hightower will likely carry the workload for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Hightower is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
Advantage: Lions +1. Despite their poor performance last week, I still maintain the Lions run defense to be an above average unit. The Saints, on the other hand, rarely dominate teams on the ground, and without their best rusher, the Saints don't pose much of a threat running the ball. That being said, their offensive success doesn't rely much on their running game, either.
Superdome. Even with the stakes low, the dome will be loud and raucous on Monday night. Noise will almost certainly be a problem for Stafford and the offense, and Brees always seems to play better in the national spotlight.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper fell to 7-6 last week after predicting -- like everyone else on the Pride of Detroit staff -- a Lions victory. While I was on the right track with a low scoring 24-13 affair, I had the teams mixed up.
In the comment section, JayBDet was one of the few brave souls to pick against the Lions (even if it was in part to reverse the curse of the unanimous picks from our staff. A lot of luck that did!). His prediction of 24-13 was good enough to win the weekly contest for Week 14. Here is your prize, Jay:
This week's prediction:
The Lions come out with a significant +2 advantage. Fans are down on the Lions after two disappointing weeks, but Detroit has still played at a much higher level than they did earlier in the season. The Saints passing offense poses a big threat, but that matches up nicely with the Lions' best unit. Other than that, there isn't a lot the Saints do well. Detroit should be able to get the offense back in motion against one of the worst defenses in the league, and New Orleans doesn't pose much of a threat running the ball. Detroit hold the advantage in three of the four matchups, and while winning in the Superdome is something the Lions haven't done 15 years, this is a game they should win on paper. Lions 30, Saints 24.