Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens travel to Ford Field to take on Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions as both teams seek to keep themselves in the playoff picture. Both teams are coming off of snowy affairs as the Lions fell to the Eagles 34-20 last week thanks in large part to LeSean McCoy's Philadelphia franchise-record 217 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Ravens battled back-and-forth with the Vikings for a thrilling 29-26 home victory that saw five lead changes in the final 2:05.
Both teams sit at 7-6 and very much a part of the playoff hunt. The Ravens look to grab the final Wild Card spot in the AFC, while the Lions will claim first place in the NFC North with a win. With New England and Cincinnati left on the schedule, this appears to be a must win for Baltimore. On the other hand, the Lions have winnable games against the Giants and Vikings to end the season, but a win would make their path to the postseason easier.
This is only the third overall meeting between the two teams, with the Ravens holding a 2-1 advantage. The last game between these two teams came four years ago in Baltimore. The Ravens won easily 48-3, as Ray Rice led the way with 166 yards rushing a touchdown.
3 Things to Watch
No Room to Run
These aren't two of the strongest rushing teams in the league as the Lions rank 20th and the Ravens are 29th. Ray Rice has had the worst season of his career averaging 3.0 yards per carry, with just one game over 75 yards. He has scored touchdowns in three games, with just one multi-touchdown game. Much of the explosiveness we are used to seeing from Rice has disappeared, as he has recorded just a single rush of more than 15 yards. Even his production in the passing game has seen a noticeable decline as he's averaging 5.3 yards per reception, which is three yards fewer than his career average of 8.3. He is on pace to finish with fewer than 60 receptions for the first time since he split tailback duties as a rookie in 2008. Things haven't been any better for backup Bernard Pierce, who is averaging an even worse 2.7 yards per carry. Pierce, a skilled inside rusher, hasn't scored a touchdown in 10 weeks. Meanwhile, the Lions may rank low statistically, yet they have an superb combination in the explosive Reggie Bush and the tough Joique Bell. Bush has six games with over 80 yards rushing and has been a force in the passing game averaging 10 yards per reception. However, Bush has missed time this season; most recently, last week's loss at Philadelphia. Bush is listed as questionable for Monday night with a calf injury as he has practiced on a limited basis this week. If he can't go, the Lions feel comfortable with Joique Bell. Bell actually leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns, with three in the Lions' last four contests. Either way, both teams will struggle to rush the ball as these defenses each rank in the top 10 in rushing defense. The Lions, despite their strategy of stopping the run on their way to the passer, have the league's sixth-ranked rushing defense. They were torn up last week by LeSean McCoy to the tune of 217 yards and two touchdowns. However, these Lions held Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte (twice) and Alfred Morris all under 100 yards rushing. On the other hand, the Ravens' defense, despite being ranked a spot below the Lions, actually have a more impressive rushing defense that still has some punch despite the litany of offseason departures. Their worst performance as a rushing defense came against the Packers as Eddie Lacy rushed for 120 yards. However, the Ravens have kept opponents out of the end one as they've allowed a league-best three rushing touchdowns. Additionally, the are fifth in the NFL allowing 3.8 yards per carry. If one team can establish a consistent ground game, it will receive an enormous advantage in third-and-short situations and in the red zone.
Stafford entered Week 15 ranked fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 3,976 yards and fourth in touchdowns with 27. He's one of only three quarterbacks, along with future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, that averages over 300 passing yards per game. Stafford looks poised to crack the 4,000-yard mark for the third year in a row. Only Brees, currently at seven, has more consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. Despite these milestones, Stafford has struggled with turnovers lately, throwing a league-high six interceptions over the last three weeks. Last week, he threw for a season-low 151 yards with no touchdowns, although it's worth noting that he played amidst a snowstorm in Philadelphia. Upon further investigation, Stafford's passing yardage seems to be due mostly to the fact that his 525 passing attempts are second-most in the league. What many overlook is a poor 58 percent completion rate that is 31st in the NFL and worse than those of Terrelle Pryor, Christian Ponder and Chad Henne. Stafford continues to frustrate Lions fans with his inconsistency, as he has recorded seven games with a quarterback rating over 90.0 along with three games with a quarterback rating under 75.0. The bad news for the Lions is that all three of these low-performing games have come in the last month. After the first nine games Stafford had 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he has thrown eight touchdowns to seven interceptions in the four games since. If the Lions are going to stay ahead in the NFC North, they need a better Stafford than the one who has thrown six interceptions in his last two home starts. We'll see tonight if Stafford is ready to arrive as a true elite quarterback in the NFL.
Don't forget about Megatron
It turns out that there is something that can slow Calvin Johnson down... the weather. Johnson had just three catches for 52 yards and had trouble controlling the ball in the middle of the Philadelphia snowstorm. He won't have to worry about that this week as the Lions return home to climate-controlled Ford Field. Over the past two years he's averaged seven catches and 120 yards per game at home. Despite the disappointing week, Johnson still entered this week second in the NFL in receiving yards and his 33 receiving touchdowns since 2011 lead the league. Johnson will draw coverage from Lardarius Webb, who had four passes defended last week. Perhaps, the best matchup for Johnson will be Jimmy Smith. Smith is battle-tested as he's guarded five of the top 10 receivers in terms of yardage: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (first), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (fourth), Chicago's Alshon Jeffrey (sixth) and Brandon Marshall (ninth), and Cincinnati's A.J. Green (seventh). Against such receivers, the 6-2 Smith has only allowed 22 catches and has surrendered no touchdowns. The problem for Baltimore is that Smith hasn't been strictly assigned to a single receiver for an entire game. When lined up against other defenders, these receivers have had big games. As a whole, the Baltimore secondary has been gashed by Demaryius Thomas, Jeffrey, Gordon, Green and, just last week, Cordarrelle Patterson. Athletic, play-making wideouts are the weakness for a Ravens secondary that has yet to get stable play from its safeties.
Key Player for Baltimore: Marlon Brown, WR
Brown has been a nice surprise for Joe Flacco this year as he leads the team with six touchdown receptions. Brown has come up with a series of big catches, including the toe-tapping game-winner last week against Minnesota. After being targeted just six times in the three games following his two-touchdown performance against Cleveland last month, Brown was targeted a season-high 11 times last week. Torrey Smith tends to struggle as poor weather tends to negate some of his speed; therefore, Flacco needs a reliable secondary option. In fact, Smith has gone over 80 yards just once in 10 career December games. Detroit will still focus most of its coverage on the speedster, which should open things up underneath for the undrafted rookie. With both top corners, Darius Slay and Chris Houston out, Brown should be a factor in this one.
Key Player for Detroit: Joique Bell, RB
With Reggie Bush questionable because of a calf injury, Bell becomes even more of a factor. If Bush is out, expect a heavy workload for Bell as his running style is similar to other backs (Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell) that have had success against Baltimore this year. Bell isn't just a brutish runner, as he's caught 90 passes over the past two seasons
This may simply come down to the venue of the game. Baltimore is 6-1 at home, but has limped to just a 1-5 record on the road. The Lions, built for their home turf, are a healthy 4-2 in the friendly confines of Ford Field. Calvin Johnson should have a big game against the Baltimore defense, while I expect Joe Flacco, the fourth-most sacked quarterback in the NFL, to be on that turf several times throughout the game. A healthy Reggie Bush would put the Lions over the time, but Joique Bell should be able to handle things if Bush needs to sit. A win will give the Lions a nice leg up in the race for the NFC North division crown, while a loss will put a dent in Baltimore's chances of defending their Super Bowl title.
Detroit 30, Baltimore 22