Once two of the lowliest teams in the NFL, the 13-3 Saints and 10-6 Lions are now two of the NFL’s Offensive Powerhouses led by two 5,000+ yard passers. Before Coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees arrived in ’06, the Saints’ .403 record was the third worst in NFL history; now their 64.6 Win % is tied for the sixth-best in the last six seasons. As bad as the Saints use to be, the Lions were the only 0-16 finish in league history in ‘08. Since blowing out Cleveland for the ‘57 NFL title, the Lions have had one Playoff victory. Under Coach Jim Schwartz and third-year QB Matt Stafford, the Lions are making their first post-season appearance since 1999.
Given their parallel histories and recent turnarounds, it’s fitting that the Saints’ and Lions’ fast-scoring Offenses & two 5,000+ yard passers square off for the first time in the NFC Wild Card Round. Getting their first playoff win since the Stone Ages won’t be easy for the Lions. The Saints are red-hot, ending the season with an eight-game winning streak and going undefeated at home for the first time in franchise history. Tonight, the Saints are seeking their fifth straight Playoff win at home while trying to redeem themselves for ending their Super Bowl XLVI Championship reign last year in an ignominious Playoff loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in a 41-36 upset. Historically, the Lions are 3-8 in New Orleans.
First, props to the Lions for their ’11 accomplishments. Before last season's 6-10 finish, the Lions lost 47 of 52 and set the NFL record for 26 straight losses on the road. This year Detroit finished with a 10-6 record, a franchise best since ‘95, and their first above .500 since ‘00. Their Offense set single-season franchise records 6,337 total yards, 4,814 passing yards and 474 points. After playing three games in ’10, QB Matthew Stafford joined Drew Brees as only two of four QBs in NFL history to sail the ball for over 5,000 yards in a season. He engineered four come-from-behind victories down 13+ points, an NFL record. In three of its last four outings, the Lions have scored 34 PPG.
Granted, the Lions can light up the scoreboard, but not as much as the Saints do. The NFL’s #1 Offense broke the Rams' “Greatest Show on Turf” ’00 record for total yardage and passing this season. And unlike last week’s GB contest, the Lions will face the Saints’ starting roster featuring the NFL’s 6th best Run Game, two All Pro linemen, five Pro Bowlers, and three players who rewrote the NFL Record Book led by the most prolific passer in NFL history, Drew Brees.
The 13-3 Saints racked up an astronomical 7,474 total yards on Offense this season; 5,476 yards came from the bull’s-eye accuracy of QB Drew Brees who shattered Hall of Famer Dan Marino's single-season passing record that stood for 27 seasons and set another 19 NFL Passing records. In each of the Saints last six outings of their eight-game winning streak to end the season, the Saints Offense amassed over 435 YPG (including 438 yards in their 31-17 beatdown of the Lions on Dec. 4.) In last Sunday's 45-17 demolition of the Panthers, the Saints set a new single-game franchise record of 617 yards to close out the season undefeated at home for the first time in club history. At Dome, the Saints have averaged 41.1 PPG this year. The Saints stellar ’11 performance has been compared to their ‘09 Super Bowl Championship team, which they’ve not only outperformed statistically but also outplayed heading into the postseason. In ’09, the Saints dropped their last three games. This year, the Saints are on an eight-game roll, the most pre-Playoff wins in franchise history.
Despite the enormous success of both clubs’ Offenses, the Saints' and Lions' Defenses rank in the bottom ten in the League in yards allowed (27th and 23rd respectively.)
If the Lions’ D plays like it did last week in Green Bay, they’ll be back to the litter box. The Lions landed on theirfeet after their 31-17 spanking by the Saints in Week 13, winning their next three straight. In last week’s 45-41loss to the Packers in their regular season finale, back-up QB Matt Flynn torched the Lions’ Defense for 480 yards and six TDs—a new GB franchise record. “Get Flynn In” has now replaced “Suck for Luck” as the cry of the ’12 QB Search. The loss against a GB squad largely manned by second-stringers dropped the Lions to the final sixth Seed in the NFC Playoffs, despite Stafford’s career-high 520 yards and five TDs and Megatron’s career-best 244 yards.
By contrast, the blitz-happy Saints' D limited opponents to 20 or less points in six of their last eight game win streak (24 points is the most a team’s scored during this period.) They’ve improved coverage to stop big plays, halted teams on Third Downs and in Red Zone and held opponents to FGs instead of TDs.
While the Saints rank 5th in the NFL in Third Down stops, the Lions are 3rd…but, the Saints Offense is 1st in the NFL in Third Downs with 57%; the Lions are 20th with 36%. The biggest statistical disparity is in Rushing Offense vs. Rushing Defense. The Saints’ Rushing O is ranked 6th (132.9 YPG) versus a Lions’ Rushing D ranked 23rd (128.1 YPG.) The Lions’ Rushing O (what there is of one) is ranked 29th (95.2 YPG) against a vastly improved Saints Rushing D ranked 12th (108.6 YPG.) The Saints vastly improved rushing attack (ranked 28th last season) has allowed Drew Brees to make big plays on play action. Without ground support, all Stafford can do is throw, throw, throw.
Will it be enough? This week ex-Colts Coach-turned-NBC-analyst Tony Dungy created an S-storm in the Lions locker room when he said, “Detroit will have to outscore the Saints. Even with Ndamukong Suh back, Matthew Stafford is the key to the game. He threw for 500 yards and scored 41 points against the Packers. He'sgoing to need 600 yards and 51 points to win this one."
Which leads to the big question is “Will it be a shootout?” as Vegas odds makers and NFL analysts predict given the proficiency of Brees and Stafford. Odds makers set an over-under of 59--the highest ever for a Playoff game. The Lions will HAVE to make it one against a vicious Saints secondary. By contrast, the Lions’ DBs were abused by the Packers. This week, they’ll have their work cut out for them between TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston, who’s been putting up Megatron-esque numbers in the second half of the season and is arguably the hottest receiver in the League along with NYG’s Victor Cruz.
Then there’s the man name Suh. When the Saints last beatdown the Lions, DT/penalty magnet Ndamukong Suh was on suspension. This go-round, Suh will face this season’s best Guard tandem in the NFL: All-Pros Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. Suh’s a disruptive force, no doubt, and gets double-teamed all the time because of it. Coach Payton designed the Saints’ OLine to keep manimals like Suh off Drew Brees and out of his pocket. How Suh stands up against Evans and Nicks, two of the best in the League, is THE matchup to watch tonight.
Unlike the Saints, the Lions don’t blitz much, preferring to rely on their front four. The Saints’ OLine is tied for 2nd in the NFL in QB protection; they eat 4-3’s for lunch and routinely keep some of the NFL’s best elite pass-rushers hands off Drew Brees (ask Jared Allen who’s never gotten a sack on #9.) If the “Cradle of Love” doesn’t let Detroit’s front four get to Brees, #9 will light them up.
Granted, the Lions Defense is healthier than it was Week 13 when CB Chris Houston, FS Louis Delmas, DE Lawrence Jackson were out in addition to Suh. The Lions’ eight-man front rotation will be intact tonight. The key to the game is the Run Game. The Saints Offense is firing on all eight right now: in addition to RB DarrenSproles (who just set a new NFL All-Purpose Single Season Yardage Record), a rejuvenated Chris Ivory, and human wrecking ball Pierre Thomas, Graham (who broke Kellen Winslow’s TE Receiving Record for about, hmmm, 15 minutes until Gronkowski grabbed it), and the Saints’ Olympic Track Meet of a Receiving Corps(even without an injured Lance Moore) provide too many targets for 11 defenders on any team to cover.
Fearless Prediction: With no Rushing Attack, Schwartz will pull every dirty trick play out of his little dirty trick playbook—believe dat! The Lions are playing more “disciplined” as of late, but expect yellow flags to rain upon the hallowed Superdome field when their thug ways resurface when the going gets tough—and make no mistake, it WILL get tough for Detroit. The Saints get 30-40 points on the board, it’s over. Unlike every othergame this season, the N.O.P.D. has had to CLOSE Champion Square to non-ticketholders for outdoor viewing on the giant Hi-Def Screen (probably in anticipation of possible rioting and looting by Detroit fans—See “Pistons fans track record of burning Detroit to the ground when they’ve won NBA Championships.) It’s just a recaution. The game will end with Jim Schwartz making MORE lame excuses at the post-game press conference, more of Suh’s New Age ramblings, a down-trodden Matthew Stafford whose played his heart out only to see his recidivist teammates badly in need of anger management fritter away the yardage he fought for with penalties from their consistently thug-like behaviors, and the worse punishment of all, a long, depressing plane ride back to Detroit. Saints 41 – Lions 28.
Special Thanks to Willie Mendez for designing Cover Art