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Lions vs. Saints: 5 Player Matchups to Watch in Huge Wild Card Game

Kraig LundbergAnalyst IIINovember 22, 2016

Lions vs. Saints: 5 Player Matchups to Watch in Huge Wild Card Game

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    As the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions prepare for what should be the most exciting game of the week, here are five matchups that you should keep an eye on throughout this contest.

    Both of these teams have a plethora of offensive weapons, as well as some difference-makers on defense. The winners of each of these matchups will could determine the ultimate outcome of the game.

    Who will have the edge?

Drew Brees vs. Matthew Stafford

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    Although this isn't a direct matchup, the play of Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford may have the biggest impact on who ends up winning this game.

    Both quarterbacks surpassed 5,000 yards passing and 40 touchdowns on the season, with Brees checking in at an astonishing 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns and Stafford not trailing far behind with 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.

    Both have also been on a tear lately. Brees was the first quarterback to break Dan Marino's single season record for passing yards in a season, and he ended the year with 389 yards and five touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers. Stafford surpassed 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns with his 520-yard, five touchdown performance against the Green Bay Packers.

    The Saints beat the Lions 31-17 earlier in the year, but the rematch is being billed as a shootout. With these two quarterbacks leading the charge, it's hard to believe there won't be a bunch of points put up.

Calvin Johnson vs. Saints' Secondary

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    As good a year as Matthew Stafford has had, he couldn't have done it without arguably the best receiver in the NFL.

    Calvin Johnson has been thought of as one of the most talented wideouts in the game since his second season, and this year's 1,681-yard, 16-touchdown performance cemented his elite status.

    Meanwhile, New Orleans has struggled against the pass all year, ranking 30th in the NFL in that category. The Saints somehow kept Johnson in check during their first game, holding him to six grabs for 69 yards. But if they expect to do it again, they will need to work together.

    Even if Johnson doesn't get the ball much in this game, his huge presence will open up opportunities for other receivers to get open. Johnson's effectiveness even when he's not getting the ball should help this Lions team greatly.

    Either way, Johnson is a tall enough task that it will take the whole secondary to shut him down.

Jimmy Graham vs. Lions' Linebackers

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    What Calvin Johnson is for the Lions, Jimmy Graham is for the Saints. And that's saying a lot considering Graham is a tight end.

    Johnson may be more valuable to his team than Graham is, considering the depth of New Orleans' receiving corps, but that hasn't stopped Graham from making a similar impact.

    A wide receiver in a tight end's body, Graham has caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season. He has been a matchup nightmare for any team that he has gone up against, and the Lions will get another crack at stopping him. 

    Detroit's linebackers will need to bring their A-game if they want to slow the 6'6", 260-pounder down, especially since the defensive backs will be tied up with the likes of Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson.

    As a side-note, the defense will also have to watch out for Darren Sproles, a pinball that has caught 89 passes this season.

    Good luck, Lions 'backers.

Kevin Smith vs. Jonathan Vilma

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    Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has missed a good portion of this season and has recorded just 54 total tackles, but his presence in the front seven will be big in the playoffs. Vilma will be responsible for leading the charge against a Lions rushing attack, led by Kevin Smith, that could be easy to underestimate.

    Smith had a promising rookie season with the Lions in 2008, but after failing to stay healthy for long enough to be effective, Detroit cut him and moved on. Ironically, injury trouble forced the Lions to re-sign Smith, who has been outstanding in his return. He has recorded over 500 total yards and seven touchdowns in seven games (and just four starts), which includes multiple injuries scattered throughout.

    New Orlean's strength on defense has been against the run, however, and if Vilma and the Saints can stop Smith and force the Lions to be one-dimensional, it would make life a lot harder for the Lions.

Jahri Evans vs. Ndamukong Suh

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    Although Ndamukong Suh versus Carl Nicks (both Nebraska alumni) would be a more intriguing matchup, Suh versus Jahri Evans will likely be the more frequent matchup, as Evans lines up at right guard while Suh most often lines up at left defensive tackle.

    Both players are Pro Bowl-caliber, though Suh was snubbed (likely for lack of statistics compared to last year as well as controversial play throughout the season) this year, and the battle between the two should be interesting.

    Evans has expressed respect for Suh, but his acknowledgment that Suh has played dirty may add some fuel to the fire.

    Suh was suspended for the first game between the Lions and the Saints, so this will be the first time New Orleans plays him this year. 

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