The stage is set. Five weeks stand between the Detroit Lions and the playoffs. In the month and change that follows the Lions will face key game after key game. A 4-1 record down the stretch guarantees an NFC North title, while anything less than that will require some help.
The first team in the way of the postseason is the New Orleans Saints. The Saints’ high-octane offense has them in the thick of both the NFC South and Wild Card races. New Orleans is no stranger to the Lions, as the two teams met in a 35-27 shootout last year, won by Detroit. Last year, the teams weren’t playing for anything. This year, there’s a ton on the line. Let’s take a closer look at the Saints.
New Orleans Saints (5-6)
Schedule so far:
Week 1 - vs. Raiders - Lost, 34-35
Week 2 - at Giants - Lost, 13-16
Week 3 - vs. Falcons - Lost, 32-45
Week 4 - at Chargers, Won, 35-34
Week 6 - vs. Panthers, Won, 41-38
Week 7 - at Chiefs, Lost, 21-27
Week 8 - vs. Seahawks, Won, 25-20
Week 9 - at 49ers - Won, 41-23
Week 10 - vs. Broncos - Lost, 23-25
Week 11 - at Panthers - Lost, 20-23
Week 12 - vs. Rams - Won, 49-21
Reasons the Lions should be optimistic:
The Lions continue to get healthier and it has started to result in improved play. The Lions’ defense, specifically, may have found a formula to stop the bleeding. Detroit has allowed 20 or fewer points in five straight games, and much of that has been due to their play on third down. Detroit has been using a special third-down package featuring Miles Killebrew as of late, and it has paid off drastically. Through six games, opponents were converting 49.3 percent of third downs, in the last five that number has dropped to 39.7 percent.
Additionally, the Lions pass offense will finally have some relief from suffocating defenses this week. In the past seven games, every defense the Lions have faced ranked in the top 18 in pass defense according to Football Outsiders. Three of those games featured top-5 defenses.
The Saints, on the other hand, have one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They rank 25th in the league in DVOA, t-27th in yards per attempt allowed, and 21st in completion percentage allowed. It has been awhile since the Lions offense has been able to get the ball rolling consistently, but this may be the week it returns.
Reasons the Lions should be pessimistic:
The Lions pass defense has had it easy for the past month or two. They’ve faced some pretty horrible pass offenses in Los Angeles, Houston, Jacksonville and Minnesota. That free ride ends this week. The Saints have the fifth-best passing offense by DVOA, and rank in the top five in passer rating (110.2), yards per attempt (8.0), completion percentage (71.6) and passing touchdowns (31).
Regardless of the Lions’ defensive improvement, the pass defense remains the weakness of this team team. Opponents are still completing 74 percent of their passes for a passer rating of 106.4, both figures are worst in the NFL.
But don’t sleep on the Saints’ running game. New Orleans ranks sixth in running the ball by DVOA. Mark Ingram is 12th in the league in rushing yards, and is doing so efficiently, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Aside from the Dallas Cowboys, this will be the most efficient, most-evenly balanced offense the Lions will see all year.
Also, the Saints defense is seeing some improvement. After allowing 33.6 points per game through the first five of the season, New Orleans has allowed just 23.2 points per game over the final six.
Power Rankings and overall record may have the Lions way ahead of the Saints, but these teams are actually extremely similar. Both have quarterbacks playing at an MVP level, while the defense has been keeping other teams in the game. Both teams seem to be trending upwards, especially on defense, and are poised to make a playoff run. This game has all the makings of a shootout, but we’ve been fooled plenty of times already. When it comes to this 2016 Detroit Lions teams, expect the unexpected.