On Thanksgiving Day, Detroit (7-4) pulled out yet another come-from-behind victory to grab first place in the NFC North. The Lions have won six of their last seven and every game this season has been decided by seven points or less.
This past Sunday, after a competitive and high-scoring first half against Los Angeles, New Orleans’ (5-6) defense shut out the Rams. Drew Brees and his crew bombarded former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ current unit, totaling 49 points and 555 yards in the rout.
The all-time series is tied 11-11-1. New Orleans holds a 9-4 advantage in home games. Detroit has won the past two meetings.
Detroit at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints’ defense prevent another late fourth-quarter comeback by the Lions?
Detroit has trailed at some point in the fourth quarter in every game this season. The Lions have scored the winning points during the final minute in four of their seven wins and the final two minutes in two others. The other come-from-behind victory came in overtime after scoring the tying points on the last play of regulation. In crunch time, Detroit has shown an ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In contrast, New Orleans has dropped some games in heartbreaking fashion. Back in Week 1, the Saints allowed the Raiders to score the winning touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute to ruin their season opener at home. A week later, the Giants kicked the game-clinching field goal on the final play of the game. Three weeks ago, the Broncos blocked a potential game-tying extra point and returned it for the go-ahead two-point conversion. In Week 11, New Orleans gave up an 18-yard completion on third-and-10 that let Carolina run the clock down and seal a three-point win. Unlike the Lions, the Saints have endured different and maddening ways to lose in the waning minutes of their games.
2. Will the tepid Lions’ rushing attack find any room to run?
Detroit lost No.1 running back Ameer Abdullah to a foot injury in Week 3. That absence has hurt the Lions’ running game. Theo Riddick has filled in for Abdullah, but he’s more of a receiver than runner, as evidenced by his 39.6 rushing yards per game. He has just one rushing touchdown, although he does have four receiving. Riddick also has dealt with some injuries this season, including an ankle that has him listed on the injury report, although he’s fully expected to play on Sunday.
But just how much is Detroit struggling to run the ball? The second-leading rusher on the team is quarterback Matthew Stafford with 156 rushing yards. No other back on the roster has gained more than 127 yards on the ground to this point.
Although New Orleans’ defense has not dominated opponents, it has improved against the run over the course of the season. In the last eight games, the Saints have held five opponents under 100 rushing yards and no team has gained more than 112. They also have surrendered a total of seven touchdowns on the ground during that span. Over the last five games, New Orleans has given up an average of 22.4 points per game, compared to 32.5 during the first six.
3. Can Detroit’s defense slow down Drew Brees and New Orleans’ high-powered offense?
The Saints lead the NFL in both passing yards (319.5 ypg) and touchdown passes (31). They are ninth in rushing offense (114.6 ypg) and are second in scoring (30.4 ppg) behind a league-best 41 offensive touchdowns.
Once again, Brees is triggering New Orleans’ potent attack and he has a variety of weapons with which to attack a defense. Mark Ingram ranks second in the league in yards per carry (5.3). Rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas is among the top 10 in both receptions (65, tied for seventh) and touchdown catches (seven, tied for sixth). Brandin Cooks is just behind Thomas with six touchdown grabs.
Detroit is in the middle of the rankings when it comes to total (353.5 ypg, 15th) and scoring (21.6 ppg, 15th) defense. They have allowed 250.9 passing and 102.5 rushing yards per game. But the biggest knock on the Lions’ defense has been the 22 touchdown passes allowed (tied for fourth most) compared to just seven interceptions. The lack of a pass rush (20 sacks, tied for 25th) has not helped the secondary, but Detroit will get defensive end Armonty Bryant, who has three sacks this season, back after serving a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Both teams are still in contention for the playoffs with five games remaining. However, Detroit’s situation is much more comfortable than New Orleans’. The Lions lead Minnesota by two in the loss column in addition to holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Vikings. The Saints trail Atlanta by two games and the Buccaneers by one in the NFC South.
Both teams have a few intangible advantages coming into this contest. Detroit had a few extra days to prepare after playing its annual Thanksgiving Day contest. The Lions also have confidence that they can overcome a deficit, no matter how late in a game, in order to escape with a win.
New Orleans knows it can’t afford to lose any more ground to Atlanta or Tampa Bay. Considering this is a NFC game, the outcome could come into play as a part of the conference tiebreaker. Fortunately for the Saints, this game is in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Desperation and home-field advantage will slightly outweigh confidence and extra days of preparation in a down-to-the-wire finish.
Prediction: Saints 31, Lions 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.