Clearly, this is the marquee matchup of the weekend, as two 5,000-yard passers face each other for the first time in NFL history.
The top storylines:
1. Detroit plays its first playoff game of the 21st century. The Lions’ last playoff appearance was in 1999. The last time they won a playoff game? 1991.
2. Offense, offense, offense. This one might rival the 96-point scoring bonanza we had when Arizona played Green Bay in the 2009 postseason. Both teams are extremely strong and red hot on offense, and both have severe deficiencies on defense.
3. Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh make playoff debuts. Three of the brightest young stars in the game. These Lions actually bear a resemblance to the ’09 Saints.
The last time they met…
- Only five weeks ago, when the Saints beat the Lions 31-17 at the Superdome.
- Detroit put up a decent fight, controlling the clock and outgaining New Orleans. It was a one-score game until Darren Sproles added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter.
- The Lions didn’t have Suh due to a suspension and fellow defensive cogs Nick Fairley, Chris Houston and Louis Delmas due to injury. New Orleans’ top back from that game, Mark Ingram, is now out for the year.
- The difference: Detroit struggled on third downs (2 for 11) and in or around the red zone (they had a field goal blocked and settled for another, while the offense stalled at around the New Orleans 40-yard line twice).
Injuries to watch:
- Calvin Johnson (Achilles) and Delmas (knee) returned to practice Thursday for Detroit. It also looks like they’ll get Aaron Berry back while Fairley, Houston, Alphonso Smith and Kevin Smith look to be just fine. They’re banged up, but they should finally have everyone in the lineup Saturday night.
- In New Orleans, Ingram was lost for year, while Lance Moore will also likely sit. Nothing huge, but factors nonetheless.
Why I expect the Saints to win a very close, very high-scoring game:
1. The Stafford-Johnson factor. Yeah, there’s the Brees-Graham factor, but no quarterback-receiver duo is hotter right now than Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Those two have the ability to team up and beat anybody, especially a Saints defense that ranked 30th against the pass during the regular season.
2. Drew Brees could meet his match. Brees is obviously on a tear, but here’s a comparison of the two quarterbacks in this game since they played each other in early December:
Stafford: 66%, 1,919 yards, 15 TD, 3 INT, 8.7 YPA, 110.4 rating
Brees: 74%, 1,718 yards, 19 TD, 3 INT, 8.7 YPA, 125.6 rating
Okay, so maybe not his match. But as close as it gets.
3. Everyone keeps pointing to the Saints’ Week 13 victory over Detroit, but…that was the third closest game New Orleans played at the Superdome all year, and as I mentioned above, the Lions were within one score in the fourth quarter despite myriad injuries. They’re healthier now, and it’s important to note that the team that lost for the first game often improves in rematches by making the necessary adjustments.
In that game, the Lions gave up 31 points and 438 yards. That doesn’t look good, obviously. But consider that at home this season the Saints averaged 41 points and 490 yards per game, and Detroit’s defensive effort wasn’t too shabby.
4. It’s still troubling that the Lions have surrendered over 350 passing yards in three of their last four games. And that’s why I still can’t pick Detroit to win straight up.
5. The Lions might be able to run. Despite an injury and the fact his team fell behind early, Kevin Smith was able to find some running room against the Saints in Week 13. He’s a bit banged up again now, but watch for him to play a bigger role as the Detroit coaching staff adjusts to better exploit a New Orleans run defense that gave up an ugly 5.0 yards per carry during the regular season.
6. Detroit’s defense makes more plays. And in the playoffs, that’s a huge factor, and could prevent the Saints from pulling away. The Lions had 41 regular-season sacks to the Saints’ 33, 21 interceptions to the Saints’ nine and 13 forced fumbles to the Saints’ seven.
7. The Lions match up pretty well with New Orleans. The key is that the Saints are quite susceptible to deep completions. I’m not sure why that’s the case, because they have good corners — it probably has something to do with Gregg Williams’ aggressiveness. Either way, no team allowed more completions of 40 yards or more this season, while Detroit had the second-most 40-plus-yard passes in football during the regular season.
8. Detroit’s a decent road team. Much has been made of the Saints and their home dominance (more on that in a moment) but the Lions were 5-3 on the road this season, with big wins in Dallas, Denver and Oakland. And at least it’ll feel somewhat familiar Saturday night, being on carpet in a dome.
9. But New Orleans has been here, done this. Experience could play a role. The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 with a similar make-up, and retain 14 of the 22 starters from that playoff run. The Lions have just six starters with playoff experience.
10. Ultimately, the Saints are just too good at home. They won their eight home games by an average of 23 points, with only one team getting to within 10. That’s just too much dominance.
In conclusion, New Orleans is a 10.5-point favorite, which to me is ridiculous. The evidence indicates that the Lions can win this game, but I think they fall short at the Superdome. Both teams appear to be peaking, which is key, but the Saints might be peaking at a higher altitude.
GLS prediction: Saints 41, Lions 38
(Last year’s playoff GLS playoff record: 9-2 straight up and 9-2 against the spread)