This is it.
This game is the game. The game that everything is riding on, the game that everything has come down to. The Lions have done their part through the first ten weeks of the season, going 7-3. They’re neck-and-neck with the Bears, and keeping within striking distance of the 10-0 Packers. They’re two games into the difficult half of their schedule, and though it’s been a painful test, they’re as close to the mountaintop by as anyone could have expected.
With a win, the Lions make the NFC North title race a race again, clawing to within two games of the Packers and picking up the head-to-head tiebreaker. With a win, the Lions will have handled one of the two “hard” games the Bears won’t have to handle. With a win, the Lions solidify their hold on the division-record tiebreaker—the mark that gives the Lions the upper hand on the Bears, even after being blown out by them in Week 9.
The Lions, as always, get a national showcase for this game. After years of hearing the pundits gripe about how our team is harshing America’s collective turkey buzz, there isn’t a game the football-watching world would rather see.
Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham
Over the years, Gunther Cunningham’s defenses have consistently put the clamp on Mike McCarthy’s offenses. Time and time again, the Packers fall well short of what you’d expect when a high-flying Packers air attacks meets a mediocre-to-terrible Lions defense. Look at the chart above. Note the respective offensive and defensive ranks, and points-scored deltas: there’s an undeniable trend.
For 2010's first Packers game, I projected the Lions defense to be relatively stingy; they did even better than I projected. When the 10th-ranked scoring offense (7th at the time) faces the 19th-ranked scoring defense (25th at the time), and they score 13% fewer points than average, something is up.
When Watchtowering last year’s second Packers game, I couldn’t fully trust this effect. The numbers, combined with a strong systemic advantage, were projecting a seriously low-scoring effort from Green Bay. I couldn’t believe the Lions’ D could do it again—so when I projected the Packers’ point totals, I pulled back the reins:
It seems unlikely that the Lions’ defense does that well against an offense that good twice in a row, though, so I’m going to project the Packers to slightly underperform scoring expectations: gaining 23-26 points. I expect the Lions to be more successful defending the pass with zone coverage, allowing 8.0-8.5 YpA, at the expense of fewer interceptions. The Lions will likely cede the run to the Packers again, allowing 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.
Of course, nobody could predict the Lions holding the Packers to just a measly field goal. They knocked Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a concussion in the second quarter—and despite what Rodgers and Packer fans will tell you, that wasn’t the only reason the Lions were successful against him. Before leaving the game Rodgers attempted 11 passes, completing seven of them for 46 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick.
This season, the Packers offense is #1 in the NFL, racking up a ridiculous 35.5 points per game. It’s no surprise that Rogers and his array of targets are fueling this scoring machine; they’re moving the ball through the air an average of 9.18 yards a pop. The ground game has struggled at times, but at 3.88 YpC it hasn’t been awful.
After the slew of defensive and return touchdowns in the past two weeks (which I cannot find season scoring totals that correctly exclude), the Lions defense is now technically the 19th-best in the NFL, allowing 21.9 points per game. You can see in the effectiveness stats that those averages don’t reflect the true performance of the secondary: they’re allowing a miniscule 5.45 YpA this season. On the ground, the Lions defense has allowed 4.97 YpC—this is actually an improvement; the Lions are no longer allowing more yards per rushing attempt than passing attempt.
The defense gets sacks, gets turnovers, stiffens up on third down, and gets stops. This is doubly true when the offense isn’t going three and out, or turning it over right back, and the coverage units aren’t allowing scores. On Thanksgiving, the Lions’ defense will need the Lions offense to help them get it done.
Without any systemic advantage, I would expect the Packers to slightly outperfom their season average against the 19th-ranked defense. Taking the strong systemic advantage into account, I project the Packers offense to score 27-30 points, passing for 7.00-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.
Sometimes, my projection seems very close to the “ceiling” or the “floor” of possible scenarios. For example, I thought Monday Night Football game against the Bears could be lower-scoring than I projected, but not higher. This game has wild possible movement in both directions.
All season long, the Packers have gotten themselves caught up in shootouts. They get a big lead early, but their secondary can’t shut down the other team. The Packers then have to keep the pedal to the metal to stay ahead of the other team. It is possible, if not probable, that this happens on Thanksgiving; I have been telling everyone to prepare for a possible 100-point combined effort.
Then again, the Lions scoring defense had been a Top 10 defense all season long, up until the last two weeks’ explosion of turnover- and special-teams-fueled scoring. By Pro Football Focus grades, they’re still the NFL’s second-best pass coverage unit. They simply don’t get beaten through the air.
If the Lions jump out to an early lead instead, I can see the Lions defense shutting the Packers passing game down—and dramatically depressing their scoring output.
Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers
When Scott Linehan offenses meet Dom Capers defenses, something very interesting happens. It’s one of the strongest statistical trends that has ever cropped up in The Watchtower. First, the Linehan offenses tend to rush much better than expected. Second, they tend to outperform scoring expectations as a result. Third, and most interestingly, quarterback runs are wildly more successful than usual.
This was a quirk Commenter Matt noticed back in 2009, and it’s held up. Before last season’s game against the Packers at home, it drove me to boldly predict the following:
The Lions will be starting Drew Stanton, whose running ability is well-known, and whom the Lions have never hesitated to call designed running plays for. I expect to see at least one rushing touchdown, or 20-plus-yard scramble, from Drew Stanton on Sunday.
Stanton rushed 4 times for 44 yards, with a YpC of 10.0 and long of 17. As a whole, Jahvid Best, Maurice Morris, Stefan Logan and Stanton combined for 4.63 YpC, over half a yard per carry better than season averages. Might the Lions draw up some surprise quarterback draws for Stafford? Or, might he scramble for some yardage? It’s something to keep an eye on. Of course, it didn’t translate into any more than a measley seven points, thanks in part to two Stanton picks and a missed field goal.
If the offense turns it over twice in the first three possessions for the third straight week, it’s going to be hard for the Lions to meet expectations.
However, those expectations will be extremely high. The Lions are scoring 30.1 points per game, third-best in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Packers defense is ranked 17th, allowing 21.2 points per game. Keen observers will note the Lions’ and Packers’ units are ranked very, very similarly to each other. Without any kind of systemic advantage factored in I’d project the Lions to slightly outperform season averages, just as said I’d do for the Packers above.
However, we have a strong systemic advantage in place—and look at the per-play effectiveness stats! The Packers’ pass defense is allowing 1.95 more yards per passing attempt than the Lions’. Their rushing-allowed and scoring-allowed figures are nearly identical, though. Again, we know why this discrepancy exists: the Lions defense has been victimized by special teams and defensive scores in the past two weeks.
It’s hard to project Kevin Smith to repeat his NFL Offensive Player of the Week performance, or anywhere close, on Thursday. But his dramatic welcome-back party plays right into the Lions’ hands. With a back that can take advantage of the Lions’ systemic advantage, the Lions should exceed nominal expectations.
Therefore, I project the Lions to score 33-35 points, passing for 7.0-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this projection.
Well, jeez, there’s a lot of stuff going on here. The bottom line is that we have two very high-powered offenses, and two middling defenses. However, there are very strong systemic advantages in play when the ball’s moving in either direction, and both of them favor the Lions. There’s a very high potential for a “whoever scores last wins” kind of shootout, in which case whoever scores last will win, and the Packers have won half their games by being the kind of team that always finds a way to score last.
If that’s not what happens, though, the Lions have the upper hand.
The Lions should run and pass more effectively than the Packers, and God willing that will translate into more points—without too much interference from turnovers or return touchdowns. If, however, the Lions play with fire for the third straight week, they will get burned.
Of course, there’s one more factor I haven’t mentioned: us. The Lions fans. The ones who, in the words of Peter King, were the “ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th man in the Oct. 10 Monday night win over the Bears,” and awarded a game ball for our contributions.
If we do our part on Thanksgiving like we did on Monday Night Football, if we force the Packers into beating themselves with false starts and allowed sacks, the Lions will have every opportunity to make my projection of a 33-30 Lions win look brilliant.