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Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers preview: On Paper

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We’ve got an extended preview for Lions-Packers this week.

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions. The Green Bay Packers. “Sunday Night Football.” The stage is set. The stakes are astronomical. The Lions could win their first division title in NFC North history, and the Packers could miss out on their first postseason since the 2008 season. Or the Lions could complete and epic fall from 9-4 and the Packers could, once again, reign supreme and win the division for the fifth time in six years.

But this is all well-trodden territory for you, the reader. So let’s just get to the charts already.

Lions pass offense (13th by DVOA) vs. Packers pass defense (20th)

You can blame it on whatever you want—the strength of the opposing defenses, Matthew Stafford’s middle finger, or the absence of Riley Reiff—but it does appear the Lions pass offense is in a bit of a slump. After throwing just five interceptions in the first 12 games, Stafford has now thrown four in the past three games. Stafford is coming off his second-worst performance of the year, completing just 56.5 percent of his passes and finishing with a quarterback rating of just 63.7.

Overall, the team’s passing stats continue to fall. Detroit now ranks just 14th in passer rating (93.1), ninth in completion percentage (65.5) and 15th in yards per attempt. They’re falling dangerously close to being just an average passing attack after 12 weeks of MVP-like play from Stafford.

Another possible factor in the Lions’ struggling to pass the ball in December may be the loss of Theo Riddick. Lions receivers have struggled to get open, and the one mismatch Stafford could almost always rely on was Riddick against a linebacker. Detroit looks like they’ll be without Riddick again, as his wrist injury has held him out of practice through Thursday.

The Packers pass defense is not good. They’ve only held four of 15 opponents below their passer rating average and two of those offenses were among the worst in the league. Seven of 15 offenses managed a passer rating above 100 against the Green Bay defense, including the Lions way back in Week 3.

Green Bay is just 26th in passer rating allowed (95.9), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.0) and 25th in completion percentage (64.9). Where the team does excel, however, is in disruption plays. They have the fifth-most sacks in the league (38) and the third-most interceptions (16). You can move on this defense for much of the game, but the moment you let your guard down, they’ll pounce on an opportunity. For a Lions offense that is turning the ball over at an uncharacteristically high rate recently, that should be a major concern.

Player to watch: Nick Perry. Key to getting those disruption plays for Green Bay is getting pressure on the quarterback. The Lions’ pass protection hasn’t been great lately, and Perry leads the Packers with 10.0 sacks on the year. He also has 4.0 in his past three games, so he’s playing at his best right now, even though he’s dealing with a nagging hand injury.

Advantage: Lions +2. This is a bad Packers defense and the Lions should be able to move the ball like they did against the Cowboys in the first half. However, Green Bay’s ability to force turnovers should scare the pants off of Lions fans, because Stafford has been giving away the ball way too easily over the past three weeks. If Stafford can avoid the bad turnovers, the Lions should win this matchup. Additionally, if Swanson can actually go this week—as it’s starting to look more and more likely—it should help a little with Green Bay’s pass rush.

Lions run offense (26th) vs. Packers run defense (12th)

There is a glimmer of hope in the Lions running game and his name is... Zach Zenner? Zenner had easily the best game of his career against the Cowboys, but it only lasted one half. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen flashes of a run game. On Monday, it was the first half. Against the Giants, it was the second half (78 rushing yards in the final two quarters for 5.2 YPC). But we’ve never seen the running game succeed throughout an entire game since Ameer Abdullah’s injury in Week 2. As a result, Detroit has only exceeded YPC averages three times this year.

The bare statistics are just as depressing. Detroit ranks 26th in YPC (3.8), while just 21.6 percent of rushes are earning first downs (23rd). Even with their three touchdown performance in Dallas, they still have fourth-fewest rushing touchdowns in the league (8).

This is one of the most interesting charts you’ll ever see in On Paper. Through eight games, the Packers had one of the best run defenses in the league. They held seven of their first eight opponents below their yardage average—and below 100 yards—while allowing over 4.0 yards per carry just twice.

Since then, however, it has been a complete disaster. Just look at their performance over the past seven:

The Packers’ raw stats still look respectable. They’re allowing 4.1 YPC on the year (t-13th) and just 21.1 percent of rushes against this defense are earning first downs (sixth).

However, On Paper tries to capture how a team is playing right now. And right now, this is a pretty awful run defense.

Player to watch: Travis Swanson. There’s no guarantee that Swanson will be back this week—after all, concussions are a tricky thing to get past. However, the Lions starting center has the opportunity to change the entire dynamic of the offensive line by pushing rookie Graham Glasgow back to guard, where he’ll be an upgrade over Laken Tomlinson and/or Joe Dahl.

Advantage: Draw. The Lions haven’t shown me enough consistently for me to believe they can take advantage of a Packers run defense that is playing horribly over the past two months. However, I do believe the Lions will try and last week gives me a tad bit of hope.

Packers pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

The hype about Aaron Rodgers’ return-to-form is not a media creation; it’s real. Rodgers has been on a tear since Green Bay’s embarrassing four-game losing streak. The most impressive thing about it is that it has come against some of the league’s best perceived defenses: the Texans, Seahawks, Bears and Vikings. Sure, some of those defenses aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still playing at an above-average level.

The Packers pass offense is also playing at an above-average level. In fact, well above average. Green Bay ranks fifth in passer rating (100.7), 16th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 11th in completion percentage (64.7).

But this is all about how the Packers are playing recently. Here is Rodgers’ statline in the past six game:

69.8 completion percentage, 14 TDs, 0 INTs, 118.8 passer rating.

That’s all you need to know.

The Lions pass defense is headed in the opposite direction. After three promising weeks, Detroit’s pass defense has, once again, turned awful. Ten of 15 opponents have managed a passer rating of 100 or above, and 12 of 15 have surpassed their own averages against the Lions.

Football Outsiders calls this the worst pass defense in the league and the raw statistics tend to agree. Detroit ranks last in passer rating allowed (105.0) and completion percentage (72.9), while ranking t-21st in yards per attempt allowed (7.5). Unlike Green Bay, they don’t have the disruption stats to counteract the poor defensive play. They have just 10 interceptions on the year (t-22nd) and 25 sacks (t-29th).

Player to watch: Darius Slay. Slay is the x-factor in this matchup. Like Swanson, he isn’t guaranteed to make his return this week, after missing most of the Giants game and all of the Cowboys game with a hamstring injury. However, he has participated in practice in two straight days, and his return would be huge for Detroit. He may or may not shadow Jordy Nelson, but if his hamstring is healthy enough, that should probably be the Lions’ game plan. Nevin Lawson proved over the past two weeks that he just isn’t good enough to handle the Dez Bryants and Odell Beckham Jrs. of the world. Nelson is playing hot, so the Lions need Slay more than ever.

Advantage: Packers +3.5. Pro Football Focus calls Rodgers nearly impossible to stop. I wouldn’t go that far, but I just don’t see how Detroit manages to slow him right now. Facing Rodgers without a consistent pass rush is a death wish for any defense, and I fully expect Rodgers to be surgical on Sunday night.

Packers run offense (9th) vs. Lions run defense (22nd)

The Packers run offense has been inconsistent all year, but it has seen a small revival after shifting Ty Montgomery to the backfield. Still, they’ve only outgained YPC averages in six of 15 games this year, and just once in the past six games.

Overall, the Packers run the ball somewhat respectably. They average 4.5 YPC (t-eight) and earn first downs on 23.9 percent of carries (12th).

While those stats are somewhat impressive, Green Bay runs a little too hot-and-cold in the running game to call them anything more than average.

The Lions run defense has hung around average numbers for awhile, but has occasionally fallen prey to a bad game or two. In the past eight games, they’ve held just two opponents significantly below their YPC average, but over that same time period, only three opponents significantly outgained their average.

Last week against the Cowboys, the Lions managed to hold Ezekiel Elliott to just 80 rushing yards, but 55 of those came on a single play. That’s actually a bit uncharacteristic of the Lions defense, as they typically don’t give up big plays. They’ve allowed just seven rushes of 20+ yards on the season (t-11th) and two 40+ yard rushes (t-13th).

Overall, they allow 4.3 YPC (t-18th) but 25.1 percent of carries against this Lions defense end up earning a first down (t-28th).

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson. Provided that he doesn’t “body slam” Montgomery, Robinson may be the ace in the hole for the Lions run defense. Robinson has slowly been emerging as Detroit’s most feared defensive tackle, and he quietly leads all Lions with four tackles for loss (tied with four other players).

Advantage: Packers +1. It’s not a huge advantage here, but the Lions are clearly a bit below average while Green Bay is average or slightly better. I don’t expect the Packers to have any big gains on the ground, but when they need a third-and-short conversion, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few first downs gained on the ground.

Last week’s prediction:

Last week, On Paper continued its winning streak, predicting a 10-point loss to the Cowboys. In reality, it was a 21-point loss, but for the first time in awhile, On Paper was on the right side of the Vegas line. I am now 8-7 on the year, but just 4-9-2 against the spread.

In the comment section, no one was really close to the shootout score of 42-21, but cram9030 came closest with his 36-15 prediction.

As hopefully you all are aware of, Golden Tate reenacted the “Show me the money” scene from “Jerry Maguire” for the film’s 20th anniversary. Not many people know this, but a few players from the Packers reenacted a film of their own from 20 years ago. And you get an advanced copy, cram9030:

This week’s prediction:

The Packers come out with a somewhat decisive +2.5 advantage. As you can see, this is actually a much better matchup for the Lions than last week’s debacle against the Cowboys.

As many have already said, I see this game coming down to how much of an improvement Darius Slay can make on a struggling Lions pass defense. Detroit simply cannot afford to have Slay miss this game. With Rodgers at his best and the Lions secondary currently at its worst, this could be a nightmare of a game without Slay in there. If he can go and is relatively healthy, Slay is still a top 10 cornerback in this league and that will be huge against Green Bay.

The other concerning aspect of this matchup is turnovers. The Packers have forced 12 takeaways in the past three games, while turning the ball over themselves exactly zero times over that span. As for the Lions, they’ve turned it over six times in the past three games while forcing zero takeaways. That is a disturbing trend, and if it continues, the Lions have no shot at earning their first division title since 1993.

Home field advantage and a jacked up crowd give the Lions a chance on Sunday night, but on paper, this one looks pretty clear. Packers 27, Lions 20.