okay seriously this guy gets me every time
Well, this is it: the final Watchtower of 2010. If the Lions win this game, they’ll have emphatically announced their ascension from the basement of the NFL, by ascending out of the basement of their division. If they can turn away the Vikings at the gate, the Lions will finish third—as in, not last—in the NFC North.
The players don’t particularly care—at least according to Ndamukong Suh, who per ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert said:
"I don't think it means that much. The only thing that would really mean something is obviously winning the division and being able to move on to the playoffs. Winning and being third in the division, it seems you're the second loser in the whole thing. That's the way I pretty much see it right now."
I’m glad Suh has that attitude—but for me, this game means everything. The Lions have been so terribly, horribly, God-awful bad for so long. In the past decade, there have been only two seasons where the Lions won six or more games: in 2007, when they won seven, and in 2004, when they won six. These two seasons—these two not-quite-as-losing seasons—were the only times in the past ten years the Lions haven’t been amidst the bitter dregs at the bottom of the NFL cup. During those seasons, we looked forward to games. During those seasons, we thought the Lions had a chance to win going into every single contest. During those seasons, we thought the Lions were coming into their own, were finally emerging from the muck and the mire.
With a win on Sunday, this season will stand alongside those two. The Lions have won at home, and won on the road. They’ve beaten winning teams; beaten likely playoff teams, even. They’ve won in the face of adversity, they’ve come from behind—and they’ve played with a lead and held onto it. With a win on Sunday, they’ll have won two games in division, four games in a row, finished above the Vikings in the standings, and—as Neil from Armchair Linebacker wrote in an absolutely glorious post, finally buried Brett Favre, once and for all.
So, will the Lions win on Sunday? We go to the data.
Darrell Bevell vs. Gunther Cunningham
To begin with, this isn’t really Darrell Bevell’s data; it’s Brad Childress’s. Bevell has been Childress’ top lieutenant for four seasons, and before then spent five years under Mike Sherman in Green Bay. Bevell is a dyed-in-the-wool Walsh offense guy, and it’s that exact pedigree—and experience with Brett Favre in Green Bay—that made Minnesota such an attractive destination prior to Favre. There have been no real schematic changes to Minnesota’s offense since Childress left, so I’ll continue to use Minnesota’s data.
Last season, the Lions held the Vikings to 27 offensive points in both games—below their scoring average of 29.4 ppg. Now, the Vikings were the second-best scoring offense in the NFL last year, and the Lions were the worst scoring defense in the NFL. That points to a powerful systemic advantage for Gunther’s D, to say the least. It also jibes with a result from 2002, when Schwartz and Cunningham put together a gameplan that allowed their 11th-ranked Titans D to hold the 4th-ranked Eagles just below their season average. The other meeting between Childress and Gunther didn’t go very well at all—but if the advantage only works when Schwartz and Cunningham are working together, well, that’s just fine for our purposes.
I took that advantage into account in 2010’s first Vikings Watchtower, lo these many weeks back:
Given a slight advantage in execution, and a proven systemic advantage, I expect the Vikings to perform slightly below expectations. With little data about the Vikings’ 2010 offensive norms, I project them to score 17-20 points. I project them to throw for 6.5-7.0 YpA, and rush for 4.5-4.75 YpA. I have medium confidence in this projection.
The Vikings, of course, scored 24 points, which didn’t sound like a horrible miss when I reviewed the Watchtower a couple of days later:
there are two major components to the Watchtower breakdown: first, an analysis of past performance when one coach meets another coach. Attempting to control for the varying skill of the players, I try to find out if one coach has a schematic and/or playcalling advantage over the other—if one “has their number.” I try to identify the mechanism too—say, a certain offense is typically depressed when facing a certain defense, because that defense tends to sack the quarterback more often than that offense usually allows.
The systematic advantage of Gunther Cunningham's defense over Brad Childress' offense is one of the most consistent that I've found. Linehan's performances against Frazier (and Dungy) have been consistent, too. As a result, my two Vikings predictions were quite nearly spot-on. I was extremely confident in the respective effects I'd identified . . . but what was I saying about two major components? Oh, yes.
The second part is identifying what the “expectations” are. This is easy at the end of the season, when the teams have played ten or eleven games and their averages are fairly well-established—but at this point in the season, it’s mostly guesswork . . .
. . . Unfortunately, the Stefan Logan fumble that handed the Vikings the ball within striking distance skewed these results. While turnovers are a part of offense/defense interaction, this analysis doesn't factor in special teams at all--and in this case, the Vikings got a free drive AND incredible field position out of a very rare special teams mistake. In light of that, a projection of 17-20 points is not far off the mark.
Indeed-and now, at the end of the season, we know the 28th-ranked Vikings offense is mustering just 18 points a game on the average, and the slightly-below-average Lions defense should have allowed about that much. 24 points minus special teams gift-wrapped touchdown does equal 17 . . . but the Lions are supposed to have a systemic advantage, so what gives? Well, Adrian Peterson gives. Peterson ripped off an 80-yard TD run, part of a 23-carry, 160-yard day. This was enough to push the Vikings past where I projected, even with a two-interception day from Favre.
I'm not willing to completely discount the idea of a systemic advantage; the Lions were playing on the road, after all. However, I’m going to temper my expectations. Given a mild systemic advantage for Gunther Cunningham against Minnesota’s conservative flavor of the Bill Walsh offense, I project the Vikings to meet their season average, scoring 17-20 points, passing for 5.5-6.0 YpA, and rushing for 4.5-4.75 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Brad Childress has been fired, and Leslie Frazier, a candidate for the Lions coaching job, has taken over the head coaching gig. Brett Favre is out, and Joe “He Worked Out At Wide Receiver At The Combine” Webb will start. The Lions defense is playing much, much better over the past few weeks than it did during the first few weeks—and are starting an almost entirely different defensive secondary. Basically, this is all completely up for grabs. But I’ll stand pat with the data anyway; it has a funny way of being right.
Scott Linehan vs. Leslie Frazier
Here’s what I projected for the Lions’ offense the first time around:
Given an equal (or slightly lesser) level of talent and execution, and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should roughly meet their season averages, scoring 20-24 points. They should pass for 6.0-6.5 YpA, and rush for 3.5-3.75 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
. . . and yeah. Ten points not so much. However, as I said in the review:
Of course, the Lions scored only ten points, so it looks like this is a huge failure. But Shaun Hill threw two end-zone interceptions from within the Vikings' ten-yard-line; if you simply switch those to touchdowns, that's 24 points on the nose. Then again, Shaun Hill turning it over against a strong Vikings D is something to be expected. It's probably why my offensive "Mitigating/Augmenting Factors" section was wholly mitigating, and ended like this:
The Vikings have held the vaunted Saints offense to just 14 points, and the much-less-vaunted-but-nothing-to-sneeze-at Dolphins offense to only 7. Even with a systemic advantage tilting the field towards the Lions, this is an extremely stout defense. It makes me very, very nervous.
For the only time this season, the Lions will face a divisional opponent at home, while starting the same quarterback they started against them earlier in the season. However, Shaun Hill’s settled into the groove and cut way down on turnovers, having started the season with 7 INTs to 5 TDs in the first four weeks of the season, but 10 TDs to 4 INTs thereafter. With the Lions’ 14th-ranked offense averaging 22.8 points a game, and the Vikings’ median defense allowing 21.9 points a game, the Lions should hit this one right on the nose.
I'd thought I'd identified a mild systemic advantage for Linehan offenses, and I suppose if Hill had thrown red zone TDs instead of red zone INTs in Week 3, I'd have been correct. However he didn’t, so I wasn’t. For the purposes of this week, I’ll take the advantages off the table.
The Lions’ offense should meet their season averages against the Vikings’ median-ranked defense, scoring 21-23 points, passing for 6.0-6.5 YpA, and rushing for 3.75-4.00 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
As on the defensive side, there are quite a few of these. It’ll be played in front of a sold-out (and likely raucous) Ford Field crowd, instead of at the Metrodome. Shaun Hill could play as he was in midseason, or he could play as he did against the Vikings the first time. Jahvid Best could put up his best game of the season—or not. Still, as with the offense, I’ll stick with the data.
I'll be honest: my gut is calling this one a Lions romp, something like 35-10. However, the data’s telling me to be far more cautious, so I will be—to a point. According to my projections, the most likely outcome of the game is a 23-17 Lions victory. And, if I’m right, the worst decade in Lions history—arguably, in NFL history—will truly be a thing of the past.