Where: Superdome, New Orleans
When: Saturday, January 7, 8 p.m. ET
Last time these two teams faced off, it was Week 13, and the Saints won 31-17. That's why most people are talking about a fairly easy rematch for the Saints. However, two things are worth mentioning right away: First, the Lions actually outscored the Saints, 10-7, in the second half. Second, the Lions were without the suspended Ndamukong Suh, and the injured Chris Houston and Louis Delmas. In addition, Nick Fairley, who was supposed to be Suh's replacement in the game, was hurt in the first quarter.
"I think that we're as healthy as we've been for six or seven weeks, and I think that we expected to have everybody back at some point in the season," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said on Thursday. "Well, we're at some point of the season, so it's good to get a lot of guys back. We'll see Saturday what the best 46 is for that game."
On Tuesday, Saints head coach Sean Payton agreed that he'll see a different Lions team this time. "Well, they'll be healthier and at full strength. When you have certain players like Delmas and Suh and these guys that aren't able to play — I mean, those are significant guys that contribute to what they do. At this point in the season, all the teams are in a race to stay healthy and try to put their best lineup on the field and you just hope that you're able to do that. That's one of the things that you need to make a run here in the postseason is, to some degree, stay healthy."
In that last game, the Lions tied their second-largest penalty total of the season with 11 for 107 yards. They racked up 11 the week before against the Green Bay Packers, and posted 12 versus the Chicago Bears on Oct. 10. So many penalties in a game without Suh? How is that possible, we ask sarcastically? Well, it was up to receiver Nate Burleson to perform a total meltdown with four penalties in the game, and all in the second half. Three offensive pass interference calls, and one face mask. Think of how that game might have gone had Nate not been so touchy!
Another reason for encouragement among Lions fans is the improvement shown by quarterback Matthew Stafford over the last month. Since the last Lions-Saints matchup, Stafford has matched Drew Brees number for number — in fact, he's played as well as any quarterback in the NFL through the last month. Brees has 42 pass plays of over 25 yards in 2011; Stafford has 40. Brees throws touchdown passes on 7 percent of his attempts; Stafford does so on 6.2 percent.
Where things start to separate is in some of the "clutch" categories, and this is no indictment of Stafford — he's playing at an unreal level for a 23-year-old quarterback, and Brees is one of the 10 best quarterbacks of all time. But on third-and-long (8 yards to go or more), Brees leads the NFL with a 47.5 percent first-down conversion rate, while Stafford ranks very low at 23.5 percent -- he has converted just 19 of 81 such situations, while Brees converted 28 of 59 attempts. Brees leads the NFL in completion percentage in late and close situations (70.6 percent, or 48 of 68), while Stafford is a bit lower down the list (57.0 percent, or 53 of 93).
However, in other key situations, the two quarterbacks are very equal — they have each thrown 11 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. And Stafford has a better QB Rating (flawed stat, but it's all we have right now) inside the opponent's 10-yard line than Brees -- 98.1 to 95.8. Considering the fact that Stafford doesn't have a real running game to lean on and Brees has the best four-man running back rotation in the league, it's safe to say that Stafford has been VERY impressive of late.
On the defensive side, issues persist for both teams. Especially considering the investment each franchise has made in their defensive lines, you'd expect better than for the Lions to rank 15th in Football Outsiders' Defensive Adjusted Line Yards ranking, and for the Saints to rank 21st. The Saints allowed 5.2 running back yards in 2011, the most in the league, but we can't blame as much on their defensive line, because they have the highest percentage of rushing yards allowed from 10 yards and beyond the line of scrimmage.
If there's a defense that would allow a serious rushing attack from the Lions (who ranked 31st in Offensive Adjusted Line Yards in 2011), it would be this one. Even more surprising? The fact that neither one of these teams ranked any higher than 18th (Detroit) or 25th (New Orleans) in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate metric. Given the Saints' blitz propensities and the aggressiveness of Detroit's front four, you would expect better from both defenses.
And that points back to the quarterback position as the final solution for each of these two teams.
Hidden stat battle: The Saints' third-down offense and the Lions' third-down defense each rank first in the NFL in FO's DVOA efficiency metric. On Thursday, Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham talked about that faceoff. "Well, my approach has always been that as a defensive coordinator, you stop the run, play good in the red zone, and on third down you come off the field. And we were really good all year. I think we fell off the last couple weeks because of some of the things that happened in personnel, but we were deadly for a while.
"Like I say, a lot of people will rate you on yards, [but that] has got nothing to do with it. It is about who wins the game in certain aspects. It is just the break-out runs that we had; well, they [the Saints] only got one touchdown off that and other teams gave up 15. One thing I look at with our defense -- we are really fast. Right now we are getting well [physically], so hopefully we can play with that speed."