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Lions vs. Packers Week 18 preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers in Week 18.

Detriot Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers have been two of the hottest teams in the NFL over the past two months. The Lions have won seven of nine, and the Packers have won their last four games. Digging deeper into advanced statistics, it’s not just about winning football games. These two teams are currently playing on a level that only other elite teams are.

Since Week 13, the Lions rank third in overall DVOA—behind just the 49ers and Bills—and the Packers are right behind them at fourth. If EPA is your thing, both teams fall in the second tier of teams, with only the 49ers clearly ahead of both:

In other words, both teams deserve to be here, and quite honestly, both teams deserve to be in the postseason with how they’re currently playing. But there will only be a single playoff spot on the line Sunday night. Let’s take a closer look at which team will have the advantage... On Paper.

Lions pass offense (5th in DVOA) vs. Packers pass defense (10th)

Last 6 weeks: Lions (2nd) vs. Packers (5th)

The Lions pass offense is on a dang roll, and really the only teams to even slow them were the Jets and Giants—two games that the Lions eventually won, in part, because of their passing game.

It is worth pointing out that the last time these two teams met, the Packers held Detroit to a season-low 137 passing yards, but that comes with a pretty significant asterisk: Detroit didn’t have DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds, or Jameson Williams in that game.

But since the Lions have had that entire crew together, they’ve been arguably the best passing offense in the league. Since DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds have both been in the lineup (Week 13), the Lions rank:

  • First in EPA/dropback
  • Second in pass offense DVOA
  • First in passer rating (113.0)
  • First in passing TDs (12)
  • First in interceptions (0)
  • Fourth in Y/A (7.9)
  • First in adjusted yards per attempt (.917)
  • t-fourth in sacks allowed (6)

The Packers pass defense is hitting its stride out of their bye week (after the second Bears game). That said, it’s been pretty solid all year. They’ve allowed a passer rating above 90 just twice since early October, and they’ve allowed over 250 net passing yards just six times all year.

Lately, they’ve been very disruptive in the secondary, tallying nine interceptions over the last four games. However, their pass rush has been somewhat lacking since losing Rashan Gary in the previous matchup against the Lions. Since that game, the Packers have had just 16 sacks (t-18th) and 57 hurries (18th)

Player to watch: Jaire Alexander. The Packers have a legit shutdown cornerback in Alexander. For the season, he ranks ninth in PFF grade (79.2), sixth in coverage grade (81.0), and is allowing a passer rating of just 64.6 when targeted.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. Jared Goff works best when he’s kept clean and the Lions have done a fantastic job of that over the past two months. While the Packers are playing cleaner on the back end, I’m not sure they’ll be able to contain all of the Lions’ weapons this week. Obviously, Detroit’s passing attack may not be as electric in the cold weather, and another player to look out for is Kenny Clark, who could disrupt Detroit’s interior pass protection, but otherwise, I see this matchup clearly favoring Detroit.

Lions run offense (15th) vs. Packers run defense (31st)

Last 6 weeks: Lions (23rd) vs. Packers (28th)

The Lions rushing attack finally rebounded last week, albeit against one of the worst run defenses in the league. Still, it was a relief to see Detroit’s offensive line regain its identity and just outmuscle the Bears defensive line.

Also returning was Detroit’s ability to create splash plays on the ground. Jameson Williams took a reverse for 40 yards, and Jamaal Williams broke a huge run over the middle for 58. Perhaps most encouraging was the play of D’Andre Swift, who tallied 78 yards on 11 carries, including one of the more impressive 35-yard runs you’ll see.

But how much of that is sustainable, and how much of that was simply the result of playing the Bears? It’s hard to have a ton of confidence in this rushing attack considering their play since November. They haven’t been an awful rushing team, but it’s clear they’re far closer to an average rushing attack than they started the season.

The one thing that remains more promising than it did early in the season is short-yardage success. The Lions still only rank 22nd in that metric, but that’s up from a bottom-five start to the season.

Other relevant stats: the Lions rank 12th in run block win rate, seventh in PFF run blocking grade, and sixth in adjusted line yards. In other words, this unit still has promise despite some recent struggles.

Per tradition, the Packers have a horrible run defense again this year. They’ve allowed over 150 rushing yards in half of their games, and they’ve allowed over 4.5 yards per carry in nine games—including five of their last seven. It’d be easy to say that they have looked better as of late, but the Rams, Dolphins, and Vikings all rank in the bottom seven in terms of rushing yards per game—and all were able to surpass their YPC average against the Packers.

The Packers rank 31st in run stop win rate, 25th in run defense PFF grade, and 32nd in adjusted line yards. They’re really, really bad in everything but short-yardage situations (11th). They’re bad.

Player to watch: Frank Ragnow. The Lions center has been battling a foot injury all season long, and he’s done a valiant job. That said, it’s clear the pain is affecting his play, and he’s been inconsistent when it comes to run blocking. There’s still been far more good than bad—his 80.7 run blocking grade for the season is sixth among centers—but he’s obviously the centerpiece of this rushing attack.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. Last week was promising, and I feel pretty good about Detroit’s offensive front vs. the Packers defensive front, but there just hasn’t been enough consistency on the Lions’ side for me to be extremely confident in this matchup. That said, looking back, some of Detroit’s rough performances (Jets, Jaguars, Bills) were against top-12 run defenses in DVOA. Even that Panthers outlier looks better when you consider that’s been a top-10 run defense over the past two months. The Packers are clearly not that.

Packers pass offense (15th) vs. Lions pass defense (22nd)

Last 6 weeks: Packers (11th) vs. Lions (26th)

Aaron Rodgers’ horrible year has been a little overstated. He hasn’t been his usual dominant self, and there is no speak of an MVP year this season, but this is still a pretty decent passing offense, and it’s starting to hit its stride despite an average looking chart over the past month.

Like the Lions, what’s really changed is the health and development of Green Bay’s receiving corps. Allen Lazard has become more dependable, rookie Romeo Doubs is settling in nicely, and Christian Watson has become the Packers’ big-play threat. Since Week 10, Watson ranks 10th in yards per reception (16.1, minimum 15 catches) and tied for first in touchdowns (7).

The offensive line continues to pass block fantastically, whether left tackle David Bakhtiari is in the lineup or not. The Packers rank sixth in pass block win rate, third in pass block PFF grade, and third in pressure percentage. To be fair, Green Bay does love to get rid of the ball quickly. Rodgers’ 2.68 seconds to throw is the 10th fastest in the league.

Last time around, I called the Packers passing offense “cowardball,” averaging just 3.1 air yards per completion. Since then, though, they’ve started to push it more downfield. That number is up to 4.8 now, but it still ranks sixth-lowest.

The Lions pass defense rebounded in a big way last week, but, again, it feels like a hard data point to interpret. The Bears are awful.

This makes for an incredibly tough unit to analyze. Ever since the Packers game, it seemed like this unit was on the mend, but that three-game stretch against the Vikings, Jets, and Panthers is impossible to ignore. They were downright awful over that stretch—almost as good as they were in the previous five games.

So where does that leave us? I think it’s fair to say that this is a comfortably below-average pass defense—especially at cornerback. It’s not even clear who the starters will be this week or with Jeff Okudah being benched in each of the past two games.

Where the Lions have really struggled is allowing too many big plays through the air. They’ve allowed 56 passes of 20+ yards (third most) and 11 of 40+ yards (third most). The Packers offense has 52 passing plays of 20+ yards (t-seventh).

Player to watch: Watson. The Lions have had mixed results when it comes to solid No. 1 receivers. Justin Jefferson had one really good game and one really bad game against Detroit. They held Stefon Diggs to nothing until they didn’t.

Advantage: Packers +1.5. I have no idea what Lions secondary is going to show up in this game. The one thing Detroit has been doing really well to compensate for an unreliable secondary is rush the passer. James Houston has been a revelation, but I’m not sure those good times will continue against a solid Packers offensive line. Last time, the Lions managed a sack and five quarterback hits, so they could get to him more with an improved room since then. Still, Rodgers is going to be tough to contain with the inconsistencies right now.

Packers run offense (3rd) vs. Lions run defense (27th)

Last 6 weeks: Packers (3rd) vs. Lions (19th)

The Packers rushing attack isn’t exactly explosive, but it is good at consistently picking up medium chunks at a time. This was highlighted perfectly by Ryan Mathews in our Week 18 scouting report:

Among running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts, (Aaron) Jones ranks fourth in DYAR, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 203 attempts, while (A.J.) Dillon ranks seventh in DYAR. Two numbers to keep in mind, however, are the respective longest runs for Jones (36) and Dillon (27) this season which rank 56th and 84th in the NFL among runners.

Again, this is due to a strong offensive line that ranks ninth in run block rate and a team that ranks second in adjusted line yards. The Packers do their best work on the edges, particularly on the right side behind right tackle Yosh Nijman, who ranks first in run block win rate among tackles. Expect to see a lot of Aidan Hutchinson on that side of the field.

The Lions run defense appeared to be turning a corner since the Packers game, but there have been significant slip-ups along the way. The Bears have had their number twice—although Justin Fields is a unique talent that isn’t really relevant this week. But that Panthers game still sticks out like a sore thumb. Detroit cannot allow that sort of thing to happen again, and in all honestly, they did a decent job rebounding against the Bears. While Fields had two explosive plays on the day, Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery combined for just 55 yards on 11 carries.

The season-long stats are still pretty bad—25th in run stop win rate, 24th in PFF run defense grade, 19th in adjusted line yards allowed—but it is trending in the right direction.

Player to watch: The entire Lions secondary. Detroit has relied heavily on their secondary to come down and play gap-sound run defense on the edges. And that’s where the Packers are at their best. For many weeks, the Lions have been very good at that, but everything collapsed against the Panthers. With safety DeShon Elliott likely returning this week, it should help. But they need better play from guys like Okudah and Jerry Jacobs in run defense this week.

Advantage: Packers +1.5. Again, it’s hard to know which Lions defense you’re going to get this week, but I think it’s fair to say Green Bay has the edge here. The Lions did a great job in the previous matchup, holding Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon to a collective 59 yards on 20 carries, so this is far from a conclusive advantage here.

Last week’s prediction

I predicted a shootout last week against the Bears, and after one quarter, it looked like I was onto something. However, after allowing 10 points in the opening quarter, the Lions defense shut down the Bears completely and rolled to an easy 41-10 win. The Lions pass defense really stepped up more than I was expecting, and the Lions rushing attack was better than we’ve seen in months. I hesitate to adjust anything this week because the Bears are a stupid-bad team, but it was a nice performance to build some confidence heading into this huge matchup.

In the comment section, several of you did see the blowout coming, but no one was closer than LKP with their 42-14 prediction.

I have no idea what LKP stands for, but for this week, it stands for “Let’s Kill the Packers.” So here’s a photo of James Houston elbow-dropping Aaron Rodgers.

This week’s prediction

The Lions and Packers come out dead even. A lot of what happens on Sunday depends on which Lions defense shows up. I am fairly confident the Lions offense will put up points on Sunday, even in the tough environmental conditions. I have very little confidence in being able to predict what will happen defensively.

When these things come out so tightly, I often look for other factors. Both teams are performing well on special teams right now, so I could just go with the home team here. But it’s Week 18, it’s a big game. Screw it. Lions win 34-30.

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