Tonight, the Detroit Lions will host the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. It will be the most important regular season game the Lions have played since the loss that prompted the Fords to hire Matt Millen.
It’s almost impossible to enumerate all the different ways this game is crucial to the Lions’ success. In the most practical sense, a win makes the Lions 5-0, 2-0 at home, and 2-0 in division. A win would put the Bears three full games behind the Lions in the division race. It means the Lions would have to go a seemingly-impossible 4-7 afterwards to not win ten games. If the Lions win this game, the playoffs become a virtual certainty.
For many of the Lions, this will be the most important game of their career to date. They’ll never have played on Monday Night Football, in prime time, or in a game so meaningful to the division race. This will be their first professional “big game,” and we simply don’t know how they will respond.
If the Lions can bring their “A” game, their first 60-minute three-phase performance, they’ll get an enormous confidence boost that should last them the rest of the year. If they choke it away, it could burst the magic bubble the Lions have been riding to the top of the NFL standings; a free fall back to the bottom of the table could result.
This will also be a test of the strength of the blue fire. The stadium will be packed full, but how loud will it be? Can we push the Lions to play at their utmost? How long can we sustain the energy? Will we fall silent if things don’t go the Lions’ way early? Will we start heading for the exits if victory starts slipping away?
From a Detroit perspective, this game is both more and less important than the national observers would like it to be. Yes, Monday Night Football will be an outstanding showcase for Ford Field, the Detroit Lions, and their fans. Yes, it will be an incredibly important football game, both teams’ key to the playoffs. No, it will not be some kind of economic spirit totem that doubles the population overnight and supplies jobs and houses for everyone.
That having been said, a win would be really really cool.
As part of my constant tinkering with The Watchtower, I’ve decided that for division games, I’ll only use the data from the last three years. There are enough contests over the past few years that I’ll have good data—and with the same coaches on the same teams, it will be much more relevant to this week’s game than stuff that happened back in the 90s.
Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham
In last seasons’s second Bears Watchtower, I concluded:
It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions. Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns. Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference. Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards. I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome
The statistical effect I thought I’d identified—that the Martz offense will pass more effectively than expected but score a typical amount of points due to sacks and turnovers—didn’t quite play out. I projected Cutler to pass for 7.50-8.00 YpA, and instead he passed for almost exactly his season average (6.50 YpA, 6.47 avg.). I projected the Bears to run for 4.0-4.25 YpC, and that’s exactly what they did (4.07 YpC).
Throughout last season, the Bears modified their approach from Martz’s classic Sid Gillman-style offense to a more traditional attack. Throughout the season, the Bears’ sacks allowed went down as their scoring effectiveness went up.
The Bears seem more capable of executing it the classic Martz offense this year, as they’re back to more 4-wide looks, long dropbacks, and allowed sacks—but they’re averaging 23.5 points per game, ranked 13th in the NFL. They’re passing for 6.46 YpA, just as they passed for 6.47 last year—but they’re running for 4.60 YpC, nearly a full yard better than last season. Matt Forte is having a fantastic season so far, and it shows in the stats.
After four games, Lions are the 8th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. They’re allowing 19.0 points per game, a stingy 5.82 YpA, and a much more generous 4.76 YpC. To an extent, this plays into the Bears’ hands. Matt Forte will likely have another great game, taking pressure off Cutler and the offensive line. However, Jaws always tells us that points come out of the passing game . . .
During that last Watchtower, I said the following:
It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means.
I’m going to stick with that trend. I project the Bears to score 20-23 points, passing for 5.75–6.25 YpA, and rushing for 4.85--5.15 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.
If there’s anything we learned from the dirty cheating Vikings, it’s that crowd noise can give a huge advantage to a pass rush. The Bears have struggled to protect Cutler this year, allowing 15 sacks—more than any other team except the Rams. As I wrote for Bleacher Report, the Lions have played much, much better at home than on the road in 2011, and if that trend continues the Bears won’t score anywhere near this many. Unless Forte rolls for 200 yards again, I don’t see a situation where the Bears score significantly more than 23 points on the Lions.
Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith
Over the first two years, I developed what I thought was a pretty solid description of the interaction between Linehan’s offense and Smith’s defense:
Given greater or equal talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.
It was confounded by the result of last season’s opening contest—which, of course, was a little unusual thanks to the Chicago Screwjob and the in-game loss of Matthew Stafford. What I didn’t—couldn’t have—predicted is that last year’s Bears defense would actually be the fourth-best in football last year. In light of the 17.9 points per game the Bears surrendered, the above description is still exactly what happens when Linehan’s Lion offenses meet Smith’s Bear defenses. It showed in the second contest, when the Drew Stanton-led Lions passed for 7.42 YpA and ran for 4.96 YpC, but only scored 20 points.
This season, the Lions have the second-most potent scoring offense in the NFL. They’re averaging 33.8 points per game. The Lions are averaging an impressive 7.44 yard gain with every pass attempt, though mustering just 2.98 yards per carry. On the defensive side, the Bears are the 20th-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing 24.5 points per game. They’re letting up 7.18 YpA and 5.07 YpC.
If we leave schematic interplay out of it, we’d expect the Lions to score quite a bit more than their season average on the year, throw a little better than usual, and have a nice game running the ball. However, if we apply what might be the most tried-and-true schematic effect I’ve ever identified, the scoring should be less high because of turnovers, but the passing and running games should have banner days.
Therefore, I project the Lions to score 33-36 points, while passing for 8.50—9.00 YpA, and rushing for 3.50—4.00 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.
The worst-case scenario here is Matthew Stafford’s first-quarter jitters leading to another turnover, and the Bears getting an early lead. I don’t think anything short of a 40-point blowout will actually take the crowd out of this game, but if the Bears can get an early turnover and capitalize on it, that might take the edge off enough for them to get rolling.
Aw, who am I kidding? The worst-case scenario is that Julius Peppers kills Stafford dead while we all look on in horror. Barring that, the Lions have proven themselves more than able to score points in bunches when called upon, and the Bears have surrendered them in bunches to anyone with the talent to do so. The Lions’ proverbial “best game” that they haven’t played yet could see an even higher point total, but I think this is a solid projection.
There’s a long paper trail backing the effects of the systemic interplay up. The two teams are playing on two different skill and execution levels right now. Given the stakes, given how badly I want to be right, I don’t want to go overboard on the hubris. However, there’s no other conclusion I can reasonably reach, given the data. The most likely outcome of the game is a 35-23 Lions win.
Today is the day where all of the effort of keeping the flame alive pays off. Today is our day, tonight is our night, and this year is our year. Lions fans, whether you’re there with me in person, out at a bar with friends, or sitting on the edge of your couch by yourself, I want to hear you roar from coin toss to gun. The whole world is about to find out just what kind of football team the Detroit Lions are, and what kind of fans Detroit Lions fans are.