NFL Playoff Predictions: Why Detroit Lions Can Upset New Orleans Saints

Peter WardellCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Why Detroit Lions Can Upset New Orleans Saints

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    Five weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints knocked off a reeling Detroit Lions team 31-17 at the Superdome in New Orleans.

    For the Lions, it was a game marked by 11 penalties, totaling 107 free yards for the opposition. It was a game where the Lions defense was without 2010 Rookie Defensive Player of the Year Ndamukong Suh, cornerbacks Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, AND safety Louis Delmas. It was a game where the Lions failed to generate a single turnover. Did I mention they are third in the NFL in takeaways this season?

    And yet on top of all of this, it is the game that many people point to as the reason New Orleans is a near-lock to defeat Detroit again this weekend in the round one of the NFL postseason.

    With the Saints on a scorching eight game winning streak, a defeat at the Superdome would certainly be quite the upset, but I think the Lions have what it takes to pull it off:

The Big Play

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    At times, football can be a predictable sport. High-scoring offenses score lots of points; strong defenses don’t give up many. Good teams win; heavily flawed teams lose. It all seems to makes sense, and then there are one or two big plays that change the momentum of a game completely. Welcome, upset.

    The Detroit Lions thrive on the big play and are one of football’s most dangerous teams.

    It’s gotten to the point this season where teams don’t even blitz the Lions anymore for fear of giving up the long ball. I guarantee that strategy won’t be in the Saints’ game plan Saturday night, and their propensity to blitz could actually benefit the Lions in the end. With an open field for Matthew Stafford and speedy receivers too fast to be caught, a single break in coverage could easily turn into six points on the board if the Saints aren’t careful.

    When the two teams faced off in Week 13, the Lions converted three passes over 40 yards, but failed to score on any of the drives. That won’t happen again.

Red Zone Efficiency

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    When facing a defense like the New Orleans Saints’, the second you get inside the 20-yard line, you should be thinking touchdown.

    All season long, the Saints have struggled defensively, especially at stopping opponents inside the red zone. On the year, they’ve allowed touchdowns on 59 percent of drives that break inside the 20, the fifth highest rate in the NFL this season, and tops among remaining teams.

    On the other side of the ball, the Lions enter Saturday’s matchup converting 64 percent of their red zone trips, good for fourth in the NFL.

    As explosive as the Lions playmakers are with open field, I’d argue that they’re even more dangerous bottled up inside the 20. Matthew Stafford joined the elite quarterbacks Brees, Rodgers and Brady this season in terms of red zone efficiency largely due to the number of quality options the Lions run out there.

    Calvin Johnson yet again established himself as the NFL’s top end zone target, snagging nine red zone touchdowns during the regular season. The others weren’t far behind. Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew chipped in five a piece. Rookie wideout Titus Young caught four within the 10-yard-line and even Nate Burleson added a pair.

    In a shootout like we’re expecting, field goals don’t cut it if you expect to win, and there’s no reason the Lions shouldn’t have it their way.

Defensive Pressure

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    Backing New Orleans’ record-breaking offense this entire season has been consistent, top-notch play from the team’s most underrated unit, the offensive line. With Ndamukong Suh coming into town Saturday, the game will to be decided in the trenches, regardless of what the scoreboard shows.

    Last week, the Lions failed to get any pressure on the Packers and backup Matt Flynn had a field day, passing for 480 yards and six scores. Drew Brees is even better, in case you didn’t know.

    On the other hand, if the Lions' front seven break through the pocket and get some paws on the Saints signal-caller, the game could swing in the Lions favor.

    Only months ago, the Lions defensive front was considered one of the game’s best, headlined by 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, who paced the team with ten sacks in his rookie campaign. While it’s been a down year across the board for Suh and company, there’s no denying the unit’s ability to wreak havoc. Saturday night needs to be its breakout performance.

The Lions Defense Is Finally Healthy

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    For the first time in seemingly months, the Detroit Lions defense just might actually have their top 11 starters on the field at the same time, great timing as they face off against the league’s hottest offense this week.

    As mentioned in the intro, the Lions looked a lot different last time the two teams squared off. While many are excited for the return of the fearsome 25-year-old Suh (who celebrated his birthday Friday), the returns of safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston could actually be the real difference makers.

    With Delmas and Houston manning the Lions secondary through the first 11 weeks, the Lions held opposing quarterbacks to under 200 passing yards per game and a sub-par 69.0 passer rating. However after losing them Week 12 at Green Bay, the Lions secondary got torched down the stretch, allowing an average of 330 yards per game and passer rating in the 90's.

    While those numbers are a little slanted due to matchups, I definitely wouldn’t underrate the return of either defensive back this week, especially Delmas. The third-year safety is the heart and soul of the Lions secondary and many defenders say his presence on the field makes them better ballplayers.

    It’s going to take a lot of work to slow Brees and the Saints passing game Saturday, but with the handful of returnees, they have as good of a shot as ever.

No Second Chances

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    When it comes to a shootout between two high-scoring offenses, it’s much less about which side can score more points and more on which defense gets the necessary stops.

    If I’m going to be on either defense, it’ll be the Detroit Lions, all 24.2 points allowed per game and all.

    While the Lions may not be league leaders in pass defense or rush defense by any stretch, they have done a tremendous job limiting second chance opportunities, stopping opponents on third down just over 67 percent of the time, third best in the NFL.

    With a team like New Orleans, the Lions can’t afford to allow them a new set of downs. Back when the teams collided in Week 13, the Saints converted third down six times, including twice en route to first half touchdowns.

    Defensive stops saves scores. It’s as simple as that.