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Detroit Lions vs. Kansas City Chiefs preview, prediction: On Paper

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We take a look at the statistical matchup between the Chiefs and Lions.

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions take on the Kansas City Chiefs in a battle of undefeateds, just as we all predicted this would be in the offseason. The Chiefs have already established themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL, while we’re all trying to figure out if the Lions are truly a contender or not. This should be the perfect litmus test, as neither team can belly-ache much about injuries, and the Lions have the benefit of home-field advantage.

For On Paper this week, we are throwing all 2018 data out the window. It never happened. Erase it from your memory. We’re in full 2019 On Paper mode, and that means limited sample size and jumping to conclusions. Deal with it!

Lions pass offense (6th in DVOA*) vs. Chiefs pass defense (9th)

*Note: DVOA does not factor in strength of opponent until Week 5

We start out with a fascinating chart. The Detroit Lions’ pass offense has absolutely passed the eye test, and it certainly seems like Matthew Stafford is re-energized under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

But these charts suggest something else may be going on: The Lions may have just played some really bad pass defenses so far. Of course, with only three data points for each defense, the Lions’ performance obviously weighs heavily, but these stats suggest other teams have played even better than Detroit against these defenses. Once Football Outsiders starts taking into account strength of opponent (next week), we may see their DVOA ranking fall significantly.

Still, the Lions set an NFL record by having four receivers with 100-yard, one touchdown games in the first three weeks of the season, and that has to count for something.

Overall, Detroit ranks 12th in passer rating (97.5), 12th in yards per attempt (7.8), 22nd in completion percentage (62.6), and t-fifth in passing plays of 20+ yards (14). Perhaps most promising for Detroit, they’ve only given up three sacks through three games (t-fourth).

The Chiefs pass defense appears to have possibly turned a corner from last year’s atrocious effort. They completely shut down Derek Carr and the Raiders, while they forced Lamar Jackson into one of his worst career statistical games last week, where he completed a career-low 51.2 percent of his passes.

That being said, there is also one very telling data point. In Week 1 against a backup rookie quarterback who came in midway through the contest, the Chiefs allowed Gardner Minshew to come in and pop off.

Overall, the Chiefs rank 10th in passer rating allowed (85.2), 14th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 12th in completion percentage (63.2).

It’s hard to know exactly what the Chiefs are doing right. They still don’t have a particularly strong secondary, their pass rush is average, but they keep getting the job done. Playing with a lead certainly helps and they haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks, but this is still a promising start for KC’s pass defense.

Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. The Chiefs haven’t done a particularly great job of covering tight ends thus far. For the last two weeks, the leading receiver for both the Ravens and Raiders were tight ends. Hockenson could break out again this week.

Advantage: Lions +1. I know this is going slightly against the charts a little, but Detroit’s passing offense has been unequivocally good this year, especially in situational moments. There isn’t truly enough info to believe that their performances have actually been below average yet, so I’m leaning on my eyeballs a little here. With no particular strength from this Chiefs pass defense, I expect a pretty good day from Stafford.

Lions run offense (26th) vs. Chiefs run defense (32nd)

You can pretty much throw away that one green row, as it is entirely based on one 44-yard end around run from J.D. McKissic. Even with that run, the Lions barely eclipsed the Eagles’ 2.9 YPC average through three weeks. This running game has been downright awful, and just about every stat corroborates this.

They’re 27th in yards per carry (3.4) and 25th in percentage of carries that earn first downs (18.2). Their inability to run the ball played a huge part in why they gave up an 18-point lead to the Cardinals, and it nearly cost them again last week.

Coaches and players can keep repeating the mantra that they’re just one player away on each play, but that’s called football. On every single play, the failure/success of one guy can blow up an entire game. I’m simply not buying that excuse right now.

But here’s the good news: the Chiefs run defense is undoubtedly the worst in the NFL. They’re giving up a league-high 6.2 yards per carry, they’ve allowed four rushing touchdowns (t-24th) and a whopping 34.3 percent of carries against this Chiefs defense go for first downs (31st).

Player to watch: Frank Ragnow. The Lions’ interior offensive line has been playing pretty well thus far, despite the horrible running numbers. That unit is being led by second-year Ragnow, who is adjusting quite nicely to being back at center this year.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. I would love to give the Lions more credit here, but they have not given me a reason to do so yet. Admittedly, they’ve played a couple of very good run defenses so far, but they need to be able to show flashes of life, and they simply haven’t.

That all being said, this is likely to be a huge matchup in this game, as the Lions will try to keep Patrick Mahomes on the sidelines. There’s certainly a chance that Kerryon Johnson breaks out this week—I would even call it a good chance—but I can’t have a ton of confidence in that prediction with the way the Lions run offense has played through three weeks.

Chiefs pass offense (1st) vs. Lions pass defense (10th)

Pick and choose whichever Patrick Mahomes stat you’d like, this Chiefs passing attack is elite, and has only shown signs of being even better from Mahomes’ 2018 MVP campaign.

Here are all of the stats that the Chiefs lead in:

  • Passing touchdowns: 10
  • Interceptions: 0
  • Yards per attempt: 10.4
  • Passer rating: 133.8
  • Passing yards per game: 392.3
  • Passing plays of 20+ yards: 18
  • Passing plays of 40+ yards: 8 (no one else has more than 4)

I could probably go on if I needed to, but I’m sure you’ve properly soiled your pants by now.

The loss of Tyreek Hill doesn’t seem to have affected this offense as Sammy Watkins is currently second in the NFL in receiver yards (311) while tight end Travis Kelce isn’t too far behind (284).

The Detroit Lions’ passing defense is off to an incredible start when you take into account where they were last year. All week, we’ve seen widespread praise as to how impressive this secondary is playing thus far.

Statistically, the numbers are good but not great. Seventh in passer rating allowed (80.1), 11th in yards per attempt (6.8) and second in completion percentage (54.8).

One issue, however, is that the Lions defense has been allowing a lot of big plays. They’re just t-22nd in 20+ yard pass plays allowed (14) and t-25th in plays of 40+ yards allowed (4). That’s not exactly what you want to hear with the Chiefs coming to town.

Player to watch: Darius Slay. Slay is easily the Lions’ best defender, but since he’s dealing with a hamstring injury, his best asset—his speed—may be thoroughly impacted this week (if he even plays). Speed is the name of the game against this Chiefs offense, and if Slay isn’t his normal speedy self, it could mean trouble.

Advantage: Chiefs +1.5. The Lions pass defense is good this year, but this Chiefs passing attack is absolutely legendary. Mahomes is on pace to set all sorts of crazy records, and the genius of Andy Reid continues to go underappreciated. I don’t think there’s a defense in this entire league that I’d give the advantage to in this matchup, so consider it a badge of honor that Detroit is only ceding a 1.5 advantage here.

Chiefs run offense (17th) vs. Lions run defense (10th)

The Chiefs’ running game hasn’t been a huge feature of this offense this year, despite the fact that they’re typically playing with big leads. They’ve only attempted 24.3 rushes per game thus far, which is tied for 16th in the league (By comparison, the Lions are averaging 29.3 rushes per game).

The results of those runs have been mixed. They obviously had a very good day against a great Ravens run defense last week, but the week before the Raiders completely stymied them.

Overall, they rank just t-22nd in yards per attempt (3.9) but seventh in carries that have earned first downs (27.2). It’s a run offense that shouldn’t scare you, but it’s good enough to at least acknowledge and respect.

We mentioned last week the odd disconnect between the raw statistics and the DVOA ranking of the Lions’ run defense. Our conclusion, basically, was that the Lions were situationally (ie: third-and-short) great at defending the run, but otherwise pretty terrible. That appears to hold true through three weeks.

Detroit is still allowing a way-too-high 4.8 yards per carry (t-22nd), but just 19.2 percent of rushes are earning first downs against the Lions (10th).

It’s a very difficult defense to figure out right now, because this team finished 2018 as one of the best run defenses in the league, and their personnel has only gotten better since. But Damon Harrison Sr. is off to a slow start (by his standards), and the Lions’ linebacking corps is still finding their footing.

Player to watch: LeSean McCoy. The 31-year-old running back has found the fountain of youth in Kansas City. Though he’s only had 29 carries thus far, he’s averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. With Damien Williams currently dealing with a knee injury, Shady is likely going to see the bulk of the carries on Sunday.

Advantage: Chiefs +0.5. I don’t expect the Chiefs running game to have much of an impact on the outcome here, but it’s hard to look at these charts and not give KC the edge here.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper moved to 1-2 after predicting the Eagles to sneak out a win. The charts told me “tie,” but I went off the charts and said that special teams and home-field advantage would push Philly over the top. Ironically, it may have been special teams that pushed the Lions over the top. This is exactly why I don’t include special teams in these charts. They are way too variable week to week.

Anyways, in the comment section, we had a couple people hit on the exact score. First, Oldmanlion nailed the 27-24 score prediction. And, again, we had a winner from the staff. It’s almost like we know what we’re talking about.

Ryan Mathews also submitted a 27-24 Lions score prediction (and he sent it via email before Oldmanlion’s comment). Per tradition, Ryan gets to request what I photoshop, and he simply sent me a blank meme.

Here you go, Ryan:

As you may or may not know, Ryan is a huge Patrick Mahomes fan, which must make this week conflicting—as you probably heard on First Byte this week. If Mahomes lights up the scoreboard again this week, sad Ryan will have no choice but to watch from an emotional distance.

This week’s prediction:

The Chiefs come out with just a +0.5 advantage. As you may have noticed, I gave all four offenses the edge in each matchup. The big difference here is simply that the Chiefs pass offense is historically good. I hate to break down a complicated matchup with such a simple solution, but the Chiefs’ entire identity surrounds that passing offense, and it’s performing at a historic level right now.

This game has all the makings of a shootout, even if the Lions are going to try to prevent that from happening.

Part of me thinks that Patricia’s defensive genius could finally be the one to crack the Mahomes code, but this is a quarterback who has at least 26 points in literally every single game he’s played in. Whether the Lions like it or not, there’s a shootout coming, and it’s up to them whether they want to participate or not. Chiefs 31, Lions 24.