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Detroit Lions vs. Houston Texans Thanksgiving preview, prediction: On Paper

Our statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for the Thanksgiving Day Classic.

Houston Texans v Detroit Lions Photo by Mark Cunningham/Detroit Lions/Detroit Lions/Getty Images

It’s Thanksgiving, and, unfortunately, we’re left to celebrate the holiday with another lifeless Detroit Lions team. At 4-6, playoff hopes are essentially dead—especially with a daunting schedule ahead. The entire front office looks like they’re living on borrowed time, and we could be in for a huge rebuild (and, subsequently, more sad Thanksgivings) ahead.

But here’s the good news: misery loves company, and on this Thanksgiving we’ll get it. The Houston Texans have gone through their own fall from grace over the past few years, and have already blown things up. So this Thursday, let’s let the Texans in as part of our pandemic-sized Thanksgiving, and let’s try to get through this thing together.

Due to the shortened week—and a lesser interest in the actual game—this will be an On Paper: Express edition, shortened to save both of us time. We’ll focus more on Houston, since y’all know this team by now.

Lions pass offense (18th in DVOA) vs. Texans pass defense (24th)

Without D’Andre Swift, Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola, this offense reached a new level of ineptitude that we have literally never seen under Matthew Stafford. To have it come against a poor, young secondary only made matters worse.

But with Swift potentially on the return, as well as Amendola (Golladay seems unlikely at this point), they could certainly bounce back this week. Against the Washington Football Team, a good defense by most measures, the Lions were able to look competent without their No. 1 receiver. It’s possible they could do that again on Thursday.

Every single opposing quarterback has been able to outgain their passer rating average against this Texans pass defense except one: Baker Mayfield. Matthew Stafford’s current passer rating is 93.7, so Detroit could be in for a great day passing the ball.

However, there are a few things to worry about. Their pass rush is, at the very least, average (21 sacks, t-16th; pass rush win rate is 15th). That’s, of course, led by J.J. Watt, who is 10th in the NFL in pass rush in rate.

Still, this defense is pretty terrible. They’re last in passer rating allowed (108.3), they have the fewest interceptions (two), they’re 27th in yards per attempt allowed, and 25th in completion percentage (68.2).

Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson has seen his targets go up in the past month, averaging 7.25 looks per game over the past four weeks. If Golladay is out again, expect Hockenson to be a favorite target of Stafford.

Advantage: Lions +1. If the Lions can get back Amendola this week, it would be huge. Detroit really struggled on third downs against the Panthers, and Stafford really likes to check down to Amendola in those got-to-have-it situations. However, if he and Swift can’t go, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another disastrous performance like last week.

Lions run offense (22nd) vs. Texans run defense (31st)

No Swift. No running game. Pretty simple as that. Check out how the Lions running backs have performed out of the bye week.

Adrian Peterson: 50 carries, 144 yards, 2.9 YPC
Kerryon Johnson: 15 carries, 58 yards, 3.9 YPC
D’Andre Swift: 58 carries, 289 yards, 5.0 YPC

If Swift plays, the Lions have got a shot. If he doesn’t, I don’t like their chances.

The Texans run defense is very bad. It’s been better as of late, but I’m not going to crown them when they’ve given up over 230 rushing yards on three different occasions this year already. Those outliers seem to be pulling the entire unit down, but they’ve still allowed at least 100 yards rushing in seven of 10 games and have ceded over 4.3 yards per carry in six of 10.

For the entire season, the Texans overall stats look really bad. They’re allowing 5.1 YPC (32nd) and opponents are earning first downs on 28.6 percent of rushes (28th). Though I think those numbers are being skewed a bit by those horrendous performances, the overall point is this is a bad run defense.

Player to watch: Frank Ragnow. The middle of that Texans defense is not very good, and starting defensive tackle PJ Hall is headed for injured reserve. Detroit has a chance to own that line of scrimmage, especially up the middle.

Advantage: Lions +1.5 if Swift plays, Texans +1 if he doesn’t. Yep, me makes that big of a difference.

Texans pass offense (8th) vs. Lions pass defense (23rd)

Oh no.

Outside of just one game this season, Deshaun Watson has been able to outgain the defense’s passer rating allowed average on every gameday. The Lions’ passer rating allowed average is currently 97.2. This outlook isn’t great.

Houston is sixth in overall passer rating (108.3), second in yards per attempt (8.5), and fifth in completion percentage (68.7). The biggest turnaround we’ve seen with Watson is the decrease in turnovers. He only has five interceptions and one fumble through 10 games after having a total of 15 or more turnovers in each of the previous two seasons.

Watson is also bolstered by a strong receiving corps in Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller. He won’t have Randall Cobb this week, but that may not matter, because...

The Lions pass defense is bad. Don’t be fooled by last week’s “good” performance against the Panthers, this defense has been on a downslide since the bye week.

Overall, they rank 23rd in passer rating allowed (97.2), 24th in yards per attempt (7.6), and 16th in completion percentage (65.7). Additionally, only five teams have fewer sacks than the Lions do (14).

Player to watch: Will Fuller. With Desmond Trufant and Jeff Okudah really struggling, the Lions may be forced to put second-year corner Amani Oruwariye on Fuller, and that is a big mismatch. Truly, it doesn’t seem to matter who is defending who, either Fuller or Brandin Cooks should have a big day—maybe both.

Advantage: Texans +3. The only thing holding this back from a bigger advantage is the loss of Randall Cobb. I just don’t see any way the Lions can win this matchup. The only saving grace is that for whatever reason, Detroit has been pretty good against mobile quarterbacks under Matt Patricia. However, this Lions defense seems especially bad this year.

Texans run offense (32nd) vs. Lions run defense (24th)

Whew, this run offense stinks. Turns out getting back David Johnson on a bloated contract after sending away the best wide receiver in football wasn’t the smoothest of moves.

Of course, the Texans subpar offensive line has a lot to do with Houston’s struggles on the ground. Still, the team is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry (27th) and earning first downs on 22.7 percent of rushes (25th). And when you consider those numbers are bolstered by a mobile quarterback (Watson has 54 rushes for 269 yards, 5.0 YPC), you can really see how poor the Texans’ traditional running game is.

Vikings game aside, the Lions run defense has actually been very good out of the bye week. Chalk that up as literally the only thing that has improved as the season has gone on.

For the year, Detroit now ranks 22nd in yards per carry (4.5) and 18th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (26.4).

Player to watch: Jamie Collins Sr. Among all off-ball linebackers with at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps, Collins currently ranks 15th in PFF’s run defense grade. He is truly the heart of the defense’s ability to stop the run.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. There’s no reason to believe the Texans will have a turn in fortune in the traditional running game, and Detroit has been notoriously good at stopping mobile quarterbacks from running all over them. So I don’t believe the Texans running game will be a factor in this one.

Last week’s prediction:

While I got the right team in my Week 11 prediction, I did not see the game playing out as it did. I underestimated the impact of D’Andre Swift on the running game and figured Detroit could still be successful on the ground with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson. Whoops. I pretty much nailed the Lions defense, which I take no pride in. The Lions defense has been the same since the bye week.

Anyways, my 24-20 Panthers prediction was far too optimistic, and those feelings have been adjusted with the statuses of Swift, Golladay and Amendola still up in the air.

In the comment section, nobody was close. The winner is Sit Up Straight Rothstein, simply for taking the inverse strategy of poor cln_pwr2, who has been cursed to predict 30-10 Lions every single week. S.U.S.R went 30-10 Panthers, and it worked. But since I feel like you just kinda lucked into it—and nothing about that game should be celebrated—you get the worst Thanksgiving prize: green bean casserole. Even worse, I found this monstrosity on reddit:

This week’s prediction:

If D’Andre Swift plays, the Lions come out with a +1 advantage. If not, it’s Texans +1.5. Given how the Lions offense played last week, I think that’s honestly a fair depiction of how critical the rookie running back is to the team right now. He not only makes a difference in the running game, but he’s a huge matchup issue in the passing game as well. This Texans defense is quite exploitable, but the Lions obviously need their best weapons to be successful.

Defensively, I have no hope for the Lions stopping Deshaun Watson. Their best bet is simply to keep him on the sideline and try to limit Houston’s red zone success. The Texans are just average in red zone touchdowns, scoring 62.1 percent of the time (15th).

But because I have the Lions with the advantage in every other matchup, and because it feels like I’ve picked against Detroit for the past six weeks, let’s assume Swift plays and the Lions get back in the win column. 30-28 Lions.