Cold Leftovers on Black Friday

>> 11.25.2011

Though moral victories don’t count, and a good show in a “noble loss” would be bitterly disappointing for all these wonderful opportunities left hanging, it wouldn’t end the Lions season. If they take care of business against the Vikingses and the Chargerses of the world, the Lions can still make the playoffs without a ‘W’ on T-day.

To quote Dr. Seuss, "I said and said and said those words. I said them--but I lied them."

What happened yesterday was not a "noble loss" or a "good show." With the nation looking on, and the world to play for, the Lions went out and disgraced themselves--and I'm not just talking about the Suh thing.

Briefly: you can't do that. I am going to do a whole thing about the Suh incident after I review the tape, so I won't steal my own thunder. Suffice to say, it was a terrible thing and it cost the Lions dearly. It was far from the only terrible decision the cost the Lions dearly, though.

Activating only 4 cornerbacks against a team with a slew of offensive weapons, and paying the price with a busted coverage when two of them went down. Going for the end zone on 3rd-and-2 in Packers territory, then giving up and trying a long field goal with a hurt kicker. Worst of all: getting a defensive stop, having a chance to get that missed field goal back, and running out the clock instead.

The worst thing is, the Lions outplayed the Packers throughout the first half. The Lions defense had the high-flying Packers grounded. The offense was effectively moving the ball, on the ground and in the air. They had every opportunity to take control of that game, they just didn't. Or couldn't.

I am also going to do a whole thing about the refs. Again, briefly: the officiating was awful, wretchedly inconsistent, too intrusive . . . and, I have to say, felt tilted towards the Packers. I said as much on Twitter and got railed for it, but it felt that way at the time.

It was a loss. A brutal, terrible, injurious, soul-crushing loss when a win would have meant the world. However, it was still a loss--and an expected one, at that. The Lions have a mini-bye-week to lick their wounds, get healthy, and get ready for the Saints.

In the meantime: Go Raiders, and Skol Vikings.


Scott Mitchell, Matthew Stafford, and the Ghosts of Thanksgiving Classics Past

>> 11.23.2011

Mitchell_Scott9_Lions_vs_Vikings“They’ll never win anything with that quarterback.” My grandfather’s steel jaw was set like a trap. His eyes were narrowed into burning slits. Bellies full of turkey and trimmings, he and I were ‘relaxing’ after dinner by—what else?—watching the Lions.

It being 1995, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus didn’t exist. Dividing yards  by carries to explain why Barry Sanders is better than Emmitt Smith got you branded a pencil-necked geek playing with fake voodoo numbers. Still, my 14-year-old self refused to let that statement go unchallenged.

Unfortunately, being challenged wasn’t exactly my Grandpa’s thing.

"Well . . ." I ventured, swallowing hard. "Actually, Grandpa, Scott Mitchell’s been having an awesome year. I mean, his completion percentage is up around sixty, he’s got a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio, he’s on pace to throw for well over four thousand yards . . .”

“He’s a bum,” said my Grandpa. His eyes never wavered from the wood-cabinet-enclosed TV.

An airtight argument, to be sure. But . . . I mean, couldn’t he see? The Lions were outgaining everyone in football! Barry Sanders! Herman Moore! I mustered my logics, and cleared my throat.

A BUM.” The matter was closed.

Of course, the Lions went on to win that game, 44-38. Mitchell completed 30 of 45 passes for 410 yards, four touchdowns, and just one pick. Barry reeled off 138 yards on 24 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown run. I was quite satisfied with myself; logic and reason and faithful fandom had won the day. These Lions and their incredible air attack were certainly on their way to greatness.

My grandfather wasn’t happy the Lions won that day, at least not visibly so. He seemed appeased. Like, at least this time, the Lions’ absence of bumbling was acceptable to him. Meanwhile, I was punch-drunk on Lions Kool-Aid.

The Lions reeled off four more consecutive victories (seven total) to make the playoffs. Mitchell and the Lions were the second-highest-scoring offense in the NFL that year. Mitchell’s 58.3% completion percentage, 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions made for the best statistical season any Lions quarterback has had in my lifetime. I thought it was the beginning of a 49ers-esque run of offensive dominance.

Unfortunately, Scott Mitchell was a bum; those Lions never won anything.

As we speak, Matthew Stafford is on pace to complete 61.3% of his passes for 4,548 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Lions are the 3rd-highest-scoring team in football. These Lions are 7-3, not 5-6, going into the hallowed Thanksgiving Day game—but unlike 1995, the 2011 Lions started hot. It’s technically possible for these Lions to win their last seven games like the ‘95 team did—but after the midseason stumbles, and with the remaining schedule, that seems like a ridiculous pipe dream.

Just how good are these Lions? We’re still not sure. Are they the team that started 5-0? The team that went 1-3 from mid-October to mid-November? Are they headed for a mediocre 9-7 finish, or an outstanding 12-4? Matthew Stafford is not a bum—but 16 years from now, will he be remembered as the second coming of John Elway, or the second coming of Carson Palmer?

This Thanksgiving Day game will be the truest test of the Lions mettle. The Packers are undefeated; the undisputed reigning champions of the NFL. They’re comfortably atop the NFC North division standings. Until the ultimate crucible of Lambeau Field in Week 17, the Lions will not have a better chance to prove they belong amongst the best of the NFL.

I'm thankful that chance comes during the Lions’ annual showcase game. I’m thankful they can slam the door, once and for all, on decades of futility while a nation full of doubters looks on. I’m thankful they’ll be able to put a barbed-wire fence around Ford Field, and the generations of tradition the Thanksgiving game is imbued with.

Above all, I’m thankful that for the first time in my life, I’ll be there.

That’s right, I’ll be making the Pilgrimage to the Thanksgiving Classic. It’s on the bucket list of every true Lions fan, and I cannot be happier that I’ll be able to scratch it off my own. I’ll be there to cheer the Lions on with everything I’ve got, and give the Lions every possible advantage over the Packers—who, if history holds, will have an audible contingent of supporters there, too.

Though moral victories don’t count, and a good show in a “noble loss” would be bitterly disappointing for all these wonderful opportunities left hanging,  it wouldn’t end the Lions season. If they take care of business against the Vikingses and the Chargerses of the world, the Lions can still make the playoffs without a ‘W’ on T-day.

But, if they can pass this test, if they can fell these giants, every Lions fan everywhere will be able to rejoice: finally, finally, the Lions have taken their place amongst the very best teams in football . . .

. . . and somewhere, my Grandpa will stand up and cheer.


Thanksgiving Watchtower: Detroit Lions vs. Packers


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

NOS 14th 21.2 6.43 4.46 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 12 -43% 8.04 25% 1.53 -66%
NOS 14th 21.8 6.62 3.96 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 24% 9.59 45% 5.83 47%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 26 -10% 9.68 28% 3.57 -17%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 34 18% 8.92 18% 2.96 -31%
GBP 10th 24.2 7.63 3.81 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 21 -13% 10.65 40% 4.28 12%
GBP 10th 24.2 7.63 3.81 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 3 -88% 6.03 -21% 3.30 -13%
GBP 1st 35.5 9.18 3.88 DET 19th 21.9 5.45 4.97            

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.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

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

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Dom Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92 11% 4.69 0%
STL 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 MIA 21st 21.6 6.61 2.35 12 -17% 4.26 -25% 4.30 9%
DET 24th 18.1 5.60 3.91 GBP 12th 20.3 6.17 4.46 0 -100% 4.20 -25% 4.33 11%
DET 27th 16.4 7.80 4.42 GBP 7th 18.6 5.96 3.59 12 -27% 4.95 -37% 3.17 -28%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 GBP 2nd 15.0 5.90 4.65 26 15% 6.13 2% 5.86 47%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 GBP 2nd 15.0 5.90 4.65 7 -69% 5.32 -0.12 4.63 16%
DET 3rd 30.1 6.79 4.30 GBP 15th 21.2 7.40 4.72            

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.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

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.


Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

>> 11.21.2011


This season has been full of incredible moments, wonderful memories, and harbingers of success. My faith in this team, its players, its coaches, and its leaders has been converted with almost-perfect success into reality; my bold predictions and ludicrous claims have—almost without fail—come true. This team’s play has cashed nearly every check this blog has written.

The ridiculous defeat of the Panthers was the most surreal moment of my Lions fan life. Last Sunday’s debacle against the Bears was hard, but it didn’t test my faith. “All would be well,” I’d thought. “The Lions will whoop up on the Panthers, then turn around and come in hot against the Pack.”

Sitting in the stadium, staring up at a scoreboard that read “PANTHERS 24 LIONS 7,” it started to drain out of me. For the first time that season, I felt that feeling. That old familiar sensation of my stomach falling through the floor, the flood of frustration and disappointment. If the Lions lost to the Panthers, I knew, they could kiss the playoffs good-bye . . . and the Lions were about to lose to the Panthers.

Matthew Stafford, though, never wavered. His calm, confidence, and resolve were palpable. He stood confidently inside the pocket, and executed the offense to a T. He spread the ball around, found the open man, moved the chains, and never let the scoreboard change his performance or his attitude.

It's the same kind of patient execution we marvelled at in the Vikings and Cowboys games, and the lack of which we decried after the 49ers, Falcons, and Bears losses. Stafford knew he had to just keep executing, and eventually the Lions overall superiority would win the day . . . and it did. Even after the first pick, and the second (which I believe was on the receiver), his numbers were jawdroppingly good: 28-of-36 (77.8%), for 335 yards and 5 TDs; an incredible 121.9 passer effectiveness rating.

Stafford completed multiple passes to seven different Lions, and one touchdown pass to five different Lions—none of whom were Calvin Johnson. This is the Yodaesque field vision I was talking up in the preseason. This is the maturity and ability we’ve all been lauding for so long. With the season on the line and everything in doubt, Stafford Got His Groove Back.

The rest of the game was a joy. Watching Kevin Smith roll like I always thought he could, watching Stafford destroy the Panthers with surgical precision, watching the defense slowly suffocate the incredible young quarterback . . . I went from the edge of despair to the peak of elation. The Lions are well and truly back.

And not a moment too soon.


Fireside Chat, Week 11: Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

Not for the first time, but for the first time in a long time, I went big-time with the Fireside Chat: VIDEO.

Congrats to @appajack for winning the TLiW Thanksgiving Twitter contest! As always, if you like what you hear, subscribe to the Fireside Chat on iTunes (and rate it highly, if you wouldn’t mind).


Fireside Chat reminder!

>> 11.20.2011

Come and talk Lions right here: a little after 10 pm ET. Also, announcing the winner of the remote/T-shirt giveaway!


The Fallen Watchtower: Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

There will be no real Watchtower today.

I had to choose between a late, rushed gameday Watchtower of the Panthers (skipping Green Bay), and doing up Thanksgiving right with an early-week Watchtower and some good solid Thanksgiving postin'.

I chose the latter.

This is a very strange game. The 6-3 Lions are hosting the 2-7 Panthers; by those bare facts alone this game has should be an easy victory.

If you're reading this, you know there's plenty to worry about.

SRS, my favorite predictive tool, rates the Lions at +8.7; the Panthers at -5.1. Add two point for home field advantage, and the Lions should be expected to win by two touchdowns. Of course, we're left with the Jekyll -and-Hyde problem: will these be the Lions that slaughtered the Broncos, or got slaughtered by the Bears?

Assuming they split the difference, the Lions are averaging 28.0 points per game, still 4th-best in the NFL. They're gaining 6.57 yards per attempt, and 4.1 per carry. The Panthers are allowing a whopping 26.3 points per game, 3rd-worst. They're allowing a massive 7.93 yards per attempt, and 4.7 yards per carry on the ground.

The averages say the Lions should tally 37-42 points, passing for 7.50-8.0 YpA, and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC.

The defense is, technically, allowing 20.4 points per game 12th-best in the NFL--though that includes the raft of defensive and special teams points they didn't actually "allow" last week.

The Panthers offense is moving the all through the air at an impressive clip: 7.93 YpA. They're also running like gangbusters, picking up 5.9 YpC. However, that's all adding up to just 21.1 PpG. Sacks, turnovers, and penalties have severely limited Carolina's ability to convert all that yardage into points--and since that's Detroit's defensive calling card, that plays right into the Lions' hands. I project Carolina to score 17-21 points, passing for 7.0-7.50 YpA, and rushing for 5.0-5.25 YpC.

What can I say? The numbers say this should be an unmitigated tail-whooping, and the last time the numbers said that, it happened. Knowing I could well look foolish, I'll project a 38-17 Lions win..


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