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Detroit Lions at New York Giants preview: On Paper

Our statistical preview suggests this will be a defensive battle that may come down to the last few possessions.

Detroit Lions v New York Giants Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions face their biggest—and most important—test of the year this week as they head to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants. Both teams are winners of eight of their last nine. Both teams are fighting not only for a playoff spot, but for a small chance at a first round bye.

This game is absolutely crucial for both team’s postseason odds, and the intensity will be on stage for most of the country to see as FOX has selected it as their “Game of the Week.” With the stakes so incredibly high, let’s break down the matchup to see who has the advantage on Sunday.

Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA) vs. Giants pass defense (5th)

Call it the curse of the Bears, a result of Matthew Stafford’s injury or just plain dumb luck, but the Lions’ pass offense took a step back last week. It was the first game since the last time Detroit played Chicago in which Stafford was not able to surpass the defense’s passer rating average allowed.

But overall, it has been an amazing season for Stafford. While his yardage and touchdown stats are no longer blowing anyone away, he has been efficient and careful with the football at a career-high rate. He currently has his second highest completion percentage of his career (66.7), his second highest yards per attempt (7.4), and his lowest interception percentage (1.5%).

But no one knows how much this finger dislocation is going to affect his game. On Wednesday, the reports seemed very promising. On Thursday, not so much. There’s no doubt Stafford will see some kind of change in his game—especially given the likely wet weather conditions—but we won’t know how drastic the change will be until we actually see him play.

The Giants’ pass defense counters with one of the best units in the NFL. They’ve only allowed two quarterbacks to reach a 100 passer rating, and both were way back in late September/early October. Since then, they’ve held eight of nine opponents below a 90 passer rating, and only one quarterback has surpassed their season passer rating average.

The key to the Giants’ success is twofold: a dominating pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary. New York ranks 12th in the league in sacks (30) and tied for seventh in interceptions (7). As a result, opposing quarterbacks are averaging a passer rating of just 76.3, the second lowest mark in the NFL.

Player to watch: Janoris Jenkins. The young cornerback has taken his talent to another level this year. The Giants are ranked second in defensive DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and Jenkins has a lot to do with that. Jenkins leads the team with 17 passes defended—second in the NFL—and has added three interceptions to his record, as well.

Advantage: Draw. This is the matchup of the game, and it will likely decide the outcome. It’s hard to say who has the advantage with so little known about the status of Stafford’s finger, but both of these units have been supreme all year. Pass rush will be another interesting aspect of this matchup. The Lions will likely again be without their starting center, but the Giants are still adjusting to life without Jason Pierre-Paul. There’s a lot of unknowns in this matchup at this point, so it gets a draw.

Lions run offense (27th) vs. Giants run defense (5th)

The Lions hit the century mark for the first time since Week 2 against the Bears, and actually had some semblance of a running game in the second half. However, that remains the exception to the rule of this poor running game. Detroit has had to heavily rely on their passing game because they just can’t get any sort of consistency out of their running game throughout a game. In fact, the Lions have the second-fewest rushing attempts of any team in the league.

The stats make it abundantly clear why: They average just 3.8 yards per carry (t-25th) while converting just 21.4 percent of rushes into first downs (t-22nd).

The Lions may be without Theo Riddick for a second straight week, which means rookie Dwayne Washington will likely get the bulk of the carries again. Last week, he set a career high with 64 rushing yards at 4.0 a carry.

The Giants’ run defense is even more stout than their pass defense. No opponent has reached their season average of YPC since October, and just three of 13 opponents managed to significantly outgain their season rushing yards per game average. In fact, only two teams have managed to average over 4.0 yards per carry against this defense. They’re that good.

Overall, the stats are terrifyingly good. The Giants are allowing just 3.6 YPC on the year (third), have given up just four rushes of 20+ yards (t-third), and allow first downs on 21.9 percent of rushes (13th).

Player to watch: Landon Collins. It’s not often that you see a safety as the player to watch in a rushing matchup, but Collins does it all, and that’s why some even consider him an MVP candidate. Collins can play as a linebacker hybrid in running situations and that’s why he leads the team with 100 total tackles.

Advantage: Giants +1. Though I think the Lions are running the ball better, there’s no real reason for optimism in this matchup on Sunday. The Giants are studs in defending the run. But because the Lions hardly rely on their running game to move the ball downfield, I’m only giving New York a single point advantage here.

Giants pass offense (22nd) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)

Eli Manning and the Giants passing offense have been wildly inconsistent this year. You never really know which Manning is going to show up and this messy chart confirms that. Five times Manning has outgained the defense’s passer rating average, while six times he’s failed to reach that mark. Yardage stats are equally unpredictable. Manning has three games well over 300 yards, but five under 200.

Overall, the stats have to be somewhat disappointing for the two-time Super Bowl champion. New York ranks 20th in passer rating (87.8), t-20th in yards per attempt (6.9) and 18th in completion percentage (62.9). It’s pretty clear they are a below average unit, but not terrible.

The Lions’ defense remains a bit of an enigma. They continue to make most opposing quarterbacks look amazingly efficient for good chunks of games, but then can seemingly come out of nowhere with a few game-changing plays. There’s no doubt they’ve been playing better as of late, but last week against Chicago, with their third-string quarterback having little trouble moving the offense, that was a clear step in the wrong direction.

Overall, the stats remain pretty ugly. They’re 31st in passer rating allowed (101.3), t-20th in Y/A allowed (7.4) and 32nd in completion percentage (72.9). But there is one statistic that is both optimistic and telling about this Lions defense: they do not typically give up big plays. Detroit’s allowed the 10th-fewest plays of 20+ through the air (38) and t-eighth fewest plays of 40+ yards (6).

Player to watch: Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Darius Slay. Lions’ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin suggested that Slay may not shadow Beckham the entire game, but I simply don’t trust him at his word. Sure, the Lions will likely give Slay some help with one of their many talented safeties, but Beckham should never be out of Slay’s sight. I have no idea who wins this matchup, but both players are playing at the top of their game right now, despite both nursing injuries—Beckham with a thumb injury and Slay with a hamstring.

Advantage: Draw. With the Lions’ pass defense playing better and Eli Manning being a complete enigma, I cannot, with any confidence, give any team an advantage here. The key will be the Lions preventing the long play, which they’ve done well all year. However, they’ve never had to face anyone the likes of Beckham, so I give this matchup a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Giants run offense (24th) vs. Lions run defense (24th)

After a promising start to the year, the Giants’ running game has fallen off a cliff as of late. In over half of their games, they’ve rushed for less than 80 yards, while in five of those games, they didn’t even hit 60. The last time they surpassed a defense’s season YPC against average was back in Week 3.

Overall, they rank t-30th in YPC (3.4), 29th in percent of carries earning first downs (18.6), and dead last in rushing touchdowns (5).

There is a small chance for optimism as Shane Vereen returned to practice this week as he continues to work through concussion protocol. Vereen has missed most of the year with torn triceps, but he finally returned to play last week only to suffer a concussion three snaps into his return. His availability is still in question, as he has been limited all week.

The Lions’ run defense has been all over the place this year, but mostly on the average side of things. Six of 13 opponents managed to outgain their YPC average, while seven of 13 were held at or below that average. Their play as of late is better, as they haven’t allowed 100 yards rushing in a game since October.

As a team, the Lions are allowing 4.3 YPC (t-20th), but 26.7 of rushes against this defense earn first downs, good for second-worst in the league.

Player to watch: DeAndre Levy. Levy finally returned to action last week, and had a productive day on limited snaps. We were overall impressed with his instincts and lateral movement. He’s expected to see an increased role this week, and that should only mean good things for this defense.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. Detroit isn’t as clear of a favorite in this matchup because, like the Lions, the Giants similarly don’t rely on their running game very much to move the ball. In fact, the Lions and Giants rank seventh and eighth respectively in percentage of passing plays to running plays. Detroit gets the nod here because they’re an average unit against a significantly below average unit, but this matchup shouldn’t matter much.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper finally got back on the winning track after taking the Lions in a close one. I even was on the right side of the betting line, moving On Paper to 6-7 straight up and 3-8-2 against the spread. This is your weekly reminder never to gamble, and if you do (again, don’t), don’t listen to me.

In the comment section, we had three close calls for a “flawless victory” prediction. With the final score 20-17, two commenters came within 1 point of nailing it. the_hook predicted 19-17, and Alantrammell1977 predicted 21-17. While in most cases, I would give way to Price is Right tiebreaker rules, I feel in the festive mood and sharing the Champion of the World honors this week.

You each get to split a pair of new MATTHEW STAFFORD BIKER GLOVES:

This week’s prediction:

I really wanted to pick the Lions this week. I think this is a pretty good matchup for them, but the Giants come out with the tiny +0.5 advantage. What this basically boils down to is Matthew Stafford. My thoughts on his health have varied wildly all week. At first, the gruesome picture that Adam Schefter painted had me completely panicked. Then after Wednesday’s practice it seemed like it was nothing. But reports from Thursday’s practice raised concerns about how well Stafford will throw the ball, especially in wet conditions. If he can manage, I think he has a good chance of giving the excellent Giants’ pass defense trouble. But if he makes any mistakes, like he did against Chicago, game over.

Either way, expect a low-scoring defensive battle. 17-16 Giants.