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Detroit Lions Week 15 preview, prediction: On Paper Buffalo Bills

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Our statistical breakdown and preview of the Lions’ Week 15 matchup.

NFL: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions saw their playoff odds quadruple last week, and now they may actually have something to play for down the final stretch of the season.

Okay, probably not. Their quadrupling playoff odds went from under one percent to anywhere between two and four percent, depending on your preferred probability machine.

But I wouldn’t blame you for keeping hope alive, because otherwise there would be no reason to watch this week’s game between the 5-8 Lions and the 4-9 Bills. So if you are still clinging to hope, here’s what you can expect from Sunday’s game. It’s our Lions-Bills preview: On Paper.

Lions pass offense (25th in DVOA) vs. Bills pass defense (3rd)

The Lions’ passing offense is a stop light, and it’s currently one of those stop lights that is maddeningly stuck on red for far too long. When you’re driving home at 1 a.m. and there’s no one else on the road, the Lions offense is that light that refuses to go blinking yellow and is instead, a 5-minute glowing red orb that is the only thing between you and sleep.

Detroit heads into this game likely without a ton of key starters on offense: No T.J. Lang, (likely) no Rick Wagner, no Marvin Jones, (likely) no Bruce Ellington. Without some of these players, the Lions offense has just been terrible as of late. Matthew Stafford hasn’t thrown for over 250 yards or had a 90+ passer rating day since October, and he’s thrown just four total touchdowns in six games. Now he’s also dealing with a back injury that caused him to miss his media session on Thursday.

Detroit ranks just 24th in passer rating (87.6), 26th in yards per attempt (6.8) and 15th in completion percentage. This pass offense is just bad, it’s really bad right now. And with another piece of the offensive line likely out this week and another receiver on the injury list, there’s no reason to believe it will get any better this week.

The Bills pass defense, on the other hand, is one of the most formidable in the league. They have held eight of their past nine opponents below 180 net yards passing. Granted, there are a lot of poor passing attacks in there, but they’ve still managed to hold almost all of them below their yardage and passer rating averages. Just four opponents have been able to surpass a 90 passer rating and two of those came way back in Weeks 1 and 2.

Overall, the Bills are fifth in passer rating allowed (85.2), second in yards per attempt (6.4) and ninth completion percentage (63.8). Their sack numbers aren’t particularly high (21st), but they have a decent amount of interceptions (12, t-12th) and pass breakups (58, t-10th).

Player to watch: Kenny Golladay. With Bruce Ellington likely out this week, the Lions’ only consistent receiving threat is the second-year receiver. Last week, Patrick Peterson effectively locked him down, but the Bills don’t exactly have a No. 1 corner capable of doing the same. Assuming Stafford plays, I have to imagine he’ll be looking Golladay’s way early and often.

Advantage: Bills +2. Last week, Stafford threw a career-low 101 passing yards against the Cardinals. I think it’s possible he puts up yet another low performance considering Detroit is more beat up and the Bills’ pass defense is even better. This could get ugly.

Lions run offense (21st in DVOA) vs. Bills run defense (9th)

The Lions rushing attack hasn’t been all that bad lately, but it’s probably not been as good as you think. Without Kerryon Johnson, the Lions have faced a couple of poor run defenses, and while they’ve been able to eclipse 100 yards in three straight games, they haven’t been all that efficient with their runs.

As a team, they’ve only averaged 4.0 yards per carry once in the past seven games, which almost exactly lines up with the moment they lost right guard T.J. Lang (vs. Vikings).

Still, Detroit’s rushing attack is far better than it has been in the past. They rank t-18th in yards per carry (4.2) and earn first downs on 23.3 percent of rushes (18th). It’s fair to call this rushing offense just below average, even without Johnson.

The Bills’ rushing defense isn’t impenetrable, but it is pretty darn good. Just three offenses have managed to outgain their season yards per carry average against Buffalo, and only one of their last six opponents have managed to reach the century mark on the ground.

The Bills’ raw statistics aren’t quite as impressive as the chart above. They’re eighth in yards per carry allowed (4.0) but are allowing first downs on just 23.7 percent of rushes (17th). They’ve also allowed the seventh-most rushing touchdowns in the league (14).

Still, this is a pretty solid run defense that has completely shut down opposing offenses more often than not.

Player to watch: Tremaine Edmunds. The Bills first-round pick in 2018 has already become one of their centerpieces to their defense. Though Buffalo lost one of their best run-stuffing linebackers in Matt Milano last week (12 tackles for loss), Edmunds has played pretty well himself, amassing a team-high 90 tackles.

Advantage: Bills +1.5. The Lions will likely try to establish the run with so many injuries in the receiving corps, but I’m not sure how they’ll find success. With Kenny Wiggins and Tyrell Crosby likely starting on the right side of the line, you may see Detroit try to avoid that side of the line completely... which may only play into the Bills’ strength, as Jerry Hughes—typically lined up over the left tackle—is one of the Bills’ best defenders.

Bills pass offense (32nd) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

*not Josh Allen starting

It has not been a pretty rookie year for Josh Allen. The 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft has finished with a passer rating over 90 just once in his career and finished with a rating under 70 five times.

As a team, the Bills are arguably the worst passing attack in the NFL. They rank last in passer rating (58.8), 31st in yards per attempt (6.0), and 32nd in completion percentage (54.4). Allen has just five touchdown passes and the second-highest interception rate among quarterbacks with at least eight starts.

Buffalo’s best receiver—second-year Zay Jones—doesn’t have a game with more than 100 receiver yards and has just 481 total yards. Kelvin Benjamin, their third-best statistical receiver, now plays for the Chiefs.

The Lions’ pass defense has been horrible all year, but maybe—just maybe—they’re finally getting settled in. After allowing a passer rating above 100 in nine of 11 games, the Lions have held their past two opponents just below 70. Of course, the Cardinals pass offense is so bad that holding them below 70 is pretty standard for opposing defenses. Still, there’s hope for this defense.

Still, the overall statistics are pretty ugly. Detroit ranks 30th in passer rating allowed (106.6), t-29th in yards per attempt (8.2) and 24th in completion percentage (67.2). They have just six interceptions on the year (t-28th) and have allowed 25 passing touchdowns (t-21st). However, their sack numbers remain strong with 37 total (10th).

That defensive front’s depth will be tested this week, as Ezekiel Ansah is out for the season and pass rushing defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand is almost certainly out, too.

Player to watch: Darius Slay. Slay may be the only playmaker among either of these units. He’s coming off a Defensive Player of the Week performance, and there’s a good chance he could replicate that kind of game against a turnover-prone Allen.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. The Bills passing offense is arguably even worse than the Cardinals and the Lions just handled them last week. Buffalo’s offensive line is porous, their receivers are meh, and their quarterback just isn’t a very accurate thrower. No excuses for the Lions defense this week.

Bill run offense (24th) vs. Lions run defense (20th)

The Bills’ running game has been unpredictable this year. Early in the year, it was one of the worst, lately it’s been pretty darn good. The difference, of course, is quarterback Josh Allen. He, alone has been responsible for over 300 rushing yards in the past three weeks, and it has helped transform their offense—even though they’re just 1-2 in those games.

As you can see in the chart above, the Bills have been racking up rushing yards in almost every game this year, but that is more the result of a high number of rushing attempts. They have run the ball the sixth most times in the NFL, despite the fact that they’re often playing from behind.

Their efficiency numbers are far less impressive. They’re t-17th in yards per carry (4.3) and earn first downs on just 22.4 percent of rushes (t-22nd).

Detroit’s run defense is among the best in the league right now. Despite playing some seriously good rushing attacks in the Bears, Panthers and Rams over the past five weeks, the Lions have smothered the opposing team’s running backs:

And as it pertains to this specific matchup, the Lions have been especially good at stopping mobile quarterbacks, as pointed out by our own Justin Simon...

And so far this season the Lions have done a good job at limiting mobile quarterbacks.

- Aaron Rodgers (3 carries, 10 yards)

- Dak Prescott (3 carries, 2 yards)

- Russell Wilson (2 carries, 15 yards)

- Mitchell Trubisky (3 carries, 18 yards)

- Cam Newton (2 carries, 2 yards)

Overall, the Lions’ statistics are still being bogged down by early struggles, but they’re improving. They’re t-19th in yards per carry allowed (4.6) and t-10th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (22.2)

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson. We’ve long profiled Damon Harrison Sr. here, and with an inadequate Bills offensive line, there’s no reason to believe “Snacks” will struggle this week. But don’t sleep on A’Shawn. The third-year player has been getting significantly more playing time than Snacks and has been just as good.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. I’m feeling pretty darn confident in the Lions’ run defense right now, and while this team has been consistently beaten by mobile quarterbacks in the past, that hasn’t been the case this year. The Bills haven’t played a particularly good run defense in a month, and I think the Allen hype ends this week.

Last week’s prediction:

After an iffy start to an unpredictable season, On Paper is finally above .500 with its predictions. Last week’s 23-16 prediction had the right idea, but way overestimated each team’s offense (or underrated their defenses).

In the comment section, DefendTheDen not only nearly nailed the score with his 17-6 prediction, but check out how close they were to nailing the actual points scored for Detroit:

“Offense will probably still struggle. I’ll say 1 rushing TD and a FG for the offense. Defense chips in with a strip sack, fumble recovery, TD late in the game.”

Here’s your prize, DFD, you prodigy.

This week, ESPN released findings from food health reports of every major sports venue. Thankfully, Ford Field came out as one of the most compliant of venues, but the Bears’ Soldier Field wasn’t so lucky. Here’s an excerpt from their findings:

inspectors observed a cashier wiping her face with her hand and then holding a cup with her fingers inside the cup, and placing money on top of hot dog wrappers on a prep table

So here’s one of their amazing Chicago Dogs covered in all the amazing things found on American currency.

This week’s prediction:

The Bills come out with the tiniest of +0.5 advantages. As you probably noticed, the defenses have the advantage in all four matchups. Here’s what it all comes down to for me: The Bills’ overall defense is better, their rushing attack is better and while I would give the passing offense edge to Detroit, with the way the Lions’ passing game looks right now, even that advantage is small.

I think this game plays out a lot like last week’s game against the Cardinals, but there are two main differences between the Bills and Cardinals: Buffalo can actually run the ball, and their defense is far better. Give me the Bills in another ugly game. 13-6 Bills.