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Detroit Lions vs. New England Patriots preview, prediction: On Paper

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Our matchup breakdown and prediction for the Lions’ Week 3 game.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Patricia vs. Bill Belichick. Protégé vs. Mentor. The teacher has become the teach-ed. Belichick Tree. The Patriot Way. NARRATIVE NARRATIVE NARRATIVE.

Okay, can we move on from this storyline that will be bashed into our heads by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on Sunday night? Good.

Because Sunday actually provides a more interesting matchup than it appears on the surface. Both the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots are not currently happy with their performance thus far in 2018, and both teams are actually suffering from similar struggles. Both teams can’t seem to stop the run, both have made opposing quarterbacks look much better than they already are, and both offenses aren’t quite as high in potency as they should be on paper.

So let’s get into the matchups and see which team should come out on top on Sunday. It’s our On Paper preview!

[Note: I’m still using 2017 data when it comes to DVOA numbers and the charts. This will be the last week I do that. From Week 4 on, we’re only dealing with 2018 stats.]

Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA in 2017) vs. Patriots pass defense (21st)

Last year’s outstanding passing offense seems so far away after two lackluster performances from Matthew Stafford to kick off the 2018 season. Poor starts have led the Lions to throw the ball 105 times through two games, more than any other team in the NFL.

The end result hasn’t been pretty. While Stafford looked much better against the 49ers, his stats are somewhat misleading in that he still missed out on many opportunities and had yet another unacceptable turnover.

As a result, the Lions are averaging just 22.0 points per game, a good 3.5 points less than last year (and one of their 2018 touchdowns was a defensive score).

The one bright spot has been Kenny Golladay, who has clearly started what could be a breakout year for the young receiver. The second-year player has 203 receiving yards through two weeks (13th) and four catches of 20+ yards (t-eighth).

An ongoing theme you’ll find here is “A tale of two weeks” for the Patriots. Against the Texans, the Patriots were dominant in holding Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense down nearly the entire game. Against the Jaguars, they were completely embarrassed.

But this is all pretty typical of early-season Patriots. Just look at that chart from last season. In the first four weeks of the season, New England was still figuring things out on defense and they were lit up in the process by the likes of Alex Smith, Drew Brees and Watson.

It’s not exactly clear where the problem lies with the defense thus far in 2018. Their pass rush has certainly been limited by the loss of Trey Flowers last week. At 1.5 sacks, he has half of the Patriots’ sacks through two games despite missing most of Week 2. Adrian Clayborn is still a solid defender, but it’s hard to see New England generating pressure from anywhere else on the field.

Key matchup: Matthew Stafford vs. a dumb turnover. Stafford has turned the ball over five times in two games which is about five times too many. Almost every single one has been a mental mistake, which is something uncharacteristic for the quarterback in his 10th season. If Stafford can avoid a dumb mistake, the Lions should absolutely win this matchup.

Advantage: Lions +2. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I still believe there’s too much evidence from last year that suggests this Lions pass offense will be fine in the long term. As for this week, the Patriots don’t have any particular strengths on their defense. Their front seven is just okay, and their secondary is adequate at best.

Lions run offense (30th) vs. Patriots run defense (31st)

We all know how hopeless the Lions’ running game was last year, but a bright light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel last week. The Lions rushed for 5.4 yards per carry, which is something the team did just once all of 2017. Of course, we don’t know how tough that 49ers run defense is yet, but they did hold the Vikings to just 3.6 yards per carry the week before.

Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount have given the Lions running game some new life, but it’s still a little early to be making any sweeping judgments. Johnson is averaging a promising 4.6 yards per carry, but only has 13 carries thus far. Blount’s 2.9 YPC is suffocated due to his Week 1 performance of -3 rushing yards, but last week’s 4.8 YPC was likely more representative of his true talent, considering the Lions were forced to abandon the run quickly against the Jets.

Last year, the Patriots were awful at defending the run, and one of the only reasons they got better as the season went on was simply because they started jumping out to earlier, bigger leads. Overall, not only were they 31st in DVOA, but they were 30th in YPC allowed (4.7) and allowed first downs on 25.1 percent of rushes—good for 29th in the league.

This year is off to a similar start. They’re again ceding 4.7 yards per carry and most concerning for them is that number is not being influenced by one or two big plays. They’ve only allowed two carries of 20+ yards thus far. That’s not exactly good, but it shows New England’s problems in stopping the run are not limited to fixing up a play or two.

Key matchup: DT Lawrence Guy vs. Lions interior OL. Guy isn’t exactly a world-beater for the Patriots, but he’s a veteran... guy who has probably been the team’s best run defender through two games. He’ll mostly line up opposite T.J. Lang, if the Lions’ right guard plays. Lang has been reliable when he’s available, but coming off a back injury could limit his effectiveness.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. If I were to go off simply 2018 data, the Lions would have a significant advantage in this matchup, but the sample sizes are just too small to derive any conclusive judgments in this matchup. The Lions should win this matchup, but one relatively positive performance last week is not enough to convince me this Lions rushing attack is real. Give it some time.

Patriots pass offense (1st) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)

I may be just now breaking some news, but Tomathy Brady is a good quarterback. In 2017, he surpassed a passer rating of 100 in half of the games and finished with the league’s fourth-highest rating (102.8).

So far, it’s been more of the same for Brady despite the fact that his receiving corps has been decimated by injury and suspension. As a result, Brady has relied a lot more on his running backs and tight ends this year. While that isn’t a huge change in philosophy in New England, the lack of a deep threat has certainly limited its effectiveness through two weeks.

Which makes their trade for Josh Gordon all that more terrifying. If Gordon can keep it together, he’s a perfect fit in New England, but it’s hard to predict what that means for Week 3. He’s dealing with a hamstring issue and the Patriots offense is not exactly a simple one that can be mastered in a week. So chances are good that if Gordon even plays on Sunday night, he will see his snaps limited to specific packages.

The Lions pass defense was actually okay last year. A high rate of turnovers will do that for a team that has coverage issues over the middle of the field.

This year has been the same story, but without the turnovers. In other words, it’s just been bad. Though the Lions haven’t given up a ton of yards through two games, their efficiency numbers are horrible. They’re allowing 8.6 yards per attempt (t-27th), 72.3 percent of passes to be completed (25th) and a passer rating of 117.7 (30th).

When teams have needed to throw against the Lions, they’ve been able to.

Key matchup: Ezekiel Ansah vs. Trent Brown. Assuming Ansah plays—yes, I know a big assumption—this could be a huge swing in the Lions’ favor. Brown has been the team’s worst pass protector through two weeks, and we’re all aware of Brady’s lack of mobility. A good pass rush is literally the Lions’ only chance at slowing (not stopping) Brady.

Advantage: Patriots +3. New England hasn’t exactly been a devastating offense so far in 2018, but Brady has still managed to be impressively efficient. The Lions, on the other hand, have managed to make two of the most inexperienced starters in the league look like potential Pro Bowlers. With likely no Darius Slay this week, I don’t know how the Lions expect to win this matchup on Sunday. It could get ugly.

Patriots run offense (4th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)

The charts don’t necessarily agree with Football Outsiders’ assessment that the Patriots had the fourth-most efficient running game last year. They had more good weeks than not, but I would call it more of a borderline top 10 rushing attack.

This year, we can both agree this hasn’t been a great rushing attack for New England. They currently rank 24th in DVOA (not defense-adjusted yet), t-22nd in yards per carry (3.7) and t-25th in percentage of rushes that earn first downs (18.2). Hell, their leading rusher, Rex Burkhead, has 86 yards. This is a unit still looking for answers.

One easy answer to a limited rushing attack is play the Detroit Lions. On the surface, the Jets and Niners don’t have much of a rushing attack, and they certainly haven’t played like it in games against non-Lions teams, but when they face off against Detroit... oh boy, the floodgates are open.

What was an average defensive unit last year has turned into an absolute disaster for the Lions thus far in 2018. Detroit is allowing a whopping 5.6 YPC (31st), with four rushes of 20+ yards (most) and two of 40+ (yards) most. The good news is that these numbers are highly inflated by those long runs. In terms of rushes that earn first downs, the Lions are actually 11th in efficiency (20.3 percent). The bad news is that these long runs are currently a trend, not an outlier.

Key matchup: Jarrad Davis vs. himself. Yep, this is the same matchup as in Week 1, but until Davis can prove himself to be the playmaker he was billed as, he’s going to be one of the bigger liabilities in Detroit’s run game. The problems are consistently mental, which could either mean they’re correctable because he’s still learning a new, complicated defense, or it could mean he’s simply not getting it. Either way, Davis is his own worst enemy right now, and it’s costing the Lions valuable yards on the ground.

Advantage: Patriots +1. The Lions have been one of the worst teams at defending the run right now, so I can’t in good faith give them an edge here, even though New England doesn’t seem to have much going in that department on offense. Expect at least one more frustratingly long run on Sunday night.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper was relatively close with a 27-20 49ers prediction, only a few points off from the actual 30-27 score. In the comment section, we had a couple of 30-27 predictions, but they were all in the Lions’ favor. The closest to the actual score came from Smurph0404 with an odd 32-27 prediction.

Here’s your prize, Smurph:

You get a box of TB12 delicious snacks* that are bound to make you play just like Tom Brady! The box features such delicious-sounding flavors as “Cacao Goji Energy Squares,” whatever “Buffalo Almonds” are and something that is definitely not made out of people called “superfood energy squares.”

The TB12 diet and training methods are 100 percent backed by science [citation needed] and definitely not just a cash grab that at one point threatened the locker room of the best dynasty the NFL has ever seen! Just look how much Tom loves ‘em!

*Just to be clear, you’re not actually getting the snacks, just the picture.

This week’s prediction:

The Patriots only come out with a +1.5 advantage, which isn’t all that big considering some of the predictions I’ve seen this week. The truth is these teams are a lot more similar than they are different. Both are struggling to find identities on offense, while their defenses are scattered with poor personnel and injuries.

As you probably have noticed, the offense has the advantage in all of these matchups, pointing to a shootout on Sunday night, and that’s exactly what I think will happen. Unfortunately for Detroit, they’ve proven to be the more mistake-prone team through two weeks (six turnovers to the Patriots’ four), and that will be the difference this week. Patriots 31, Lions 27.