Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
In the final Monday Night Football game of the year, Atlanta travels to Detroit…on Saturday. The NFL decided to not schedule games for Christmas Eve and put the game on prime time a couple days earlier. Lions fans can consider this a Christmas present from Roger Goodell, sparing us all the hangover of another disappointing loss on the night before Christmas.
The Falcons are a very tough matchup. Atlanta is tied for the best record in the NFL at 11-2 and comes off a 34-0 thrashing of the defending champion Giants. Their point differential on the season is +112, compared to -50 for the Honolulu Blue.
The most prominent issue the Falcons raise for Detroit is their passing offense against the Lions pass defense. Matt Ryan has been very effective at quarterback, and a head-to-head comparison with Matt Stafford offers a telling glimpse into why the Falcons are getting a playoff bye and the Lions are drafting in the top 10.
Despite being almost dead even in yardage (Ryan at 4202, Stafford at 4252) Ryan has had a much more effective, efficient season. Stafford has thrown 90 more passes than Ryan to get 50 more yards. Ryan has 27 touchdowns to Stafford’s 17, while Stafford has thrown one more INT. Where Ryan has gotten better as the season progressed, Stafford has sunk; Ryan is the top-rated passer in the NFL over the last month, whereas Stafford ranks above only Mark Sanchez, Christian Ponder, the rotating carousel of suck in Arizona, and Chad Henne over the last three weeks.
Weaponry has a lot to do with it. Roddy White and Julio Jones both have over 1000 receiving yards already, and tight end Tony Gonzalez could get there with a big game against the Lions. The future Hall of Famer sits at 880 yards and eight touchdowns, and he will be a major problem in the red zone. Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers would both be the third-leading receiver on the Lions as well. Considering the Lions troubles with awareness and injuries in the pass defense, such a diverse passing attack is incredibly problematic.
At least the Lions have Calvin Johnson, who could very well break Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yardage record in this game. Atlanta’s pass defense is middle of the pack, ranking in the middle third in just about every statistical metric. Their safety play has been solid, so expect to see a lot of Thomas DeCoud helping both Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson on Megatron. None have great size, so look for Stafford to try and connect on a lot of high throws to the sidelines. When Stafford is on his game, those plays are money, but lately the cash till has been full of Canadian nickels instead of Ben Franklins.
Another glimmer of hope: Atlanta really struggles to stop the run. The Falcons rank 30th in yards per rush on defense and the number keeps getting worse. In fact, they rank dead last in opposing yards per carry on the road. The Lions don’t run the ball with consistency, but Joique Bell has proven effective when running downhill and Mikel Leshoure can churn out yards. The heavy front with Riley Reiff as an extra tackle could be very effective in this game. Atlanta thrives on getting a lead and forcing the opponent to throw. If Scott Linehan shows patience and doesn’t abandon the run when Leshoure gets in his typical 5 carries for 9 yards stretch in the game, there will be opportunities.
One way the Lions can pull off the upset is with superlative special teams. The Falcons are not good in punt coverage and rank near the bottom in punt returns. Stefan Logan will have chances to prove he deserves to remain employed, though the odds are not in his favor; only the Colts and Bears are worse on kick returns, and the Lions have the worst starting field position after special teams plays in the league.
The biggest hope has to be that the Falcons get complacent after their incredibly impressive win last week. If you recall, the week before whipping the Giants the Falcons got manhandled by the Panthers. Many pundits have chided the Falcons all season for struggling to beat inferior teams convincingly, and the Lions have shown a great ability to hang around in close games. Perhaps this is the week where the Lions finish one of those close games and send the Ford Field faithful home happy.
Perhaps not. Falcons 34, Lions 30