Let’s start with turnovers. The Eagles are tied for eighth in the NFL in turnover ratio (+7). In their seven wins, they have a +13 ratio; in their five losses, -6. During the Eagles’ four game winning streak they have turned the ball over just once. And in Chip Kelly’s favorite barometer, they are sixth in the league in net turnover points (+30). The Lions, on the other hand, are 26th in turnover ratio (-8) and 25th in net turnover points (-26).
The Lions certainly have their advantages in personnel. On defense, Ndamanking Suh and Nick Fairley formed arguably the best inside defensive line duo in the NFL. Suh is the better pass rusher. Both are stout against the run. Fairley gave the Eagles’ interior linemen fits last season, but that unit was without center Jason Kelce and started, ahem, Danny Watkins at right guard. Still, Suh and Fairley will pose problems up front for Kelce and guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. The inside guys help force quarterbacks outside the pocket where defensive ends Ziggy Ansah (seven sacks) and Willie Young have done a fine job corralling them.
The Lions, of course, utilize the wide-nine front first popularized by the Titans. Former Eagles defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who brought his wide-nine from Tennessee to Philly, is now an assistant with the Lions. The running lanes aren’t as wide, though, with Suh and Fairley up front. And middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch has played in the scheme for years, starting in Tennessee. The Lions have the NFL’s third-ranked run defense. LeSean McCoy was held to just 22 yards on 14 carries when these two teams met last year. Marty Mornhinweg kept calling for stretch plays and the Lions wouldn’t let him get around the edge. McCoy and the Eagles run game will have opportunities to take advantage of the Lions’ aggressive linemen, but the offensive line needs to finish blocks at the second level for McCoy to be a threat.
If the run game can’t force an extra defender into the box, the Lions could have the luxury of keeping two safeties deep to help a pass defense that has been leaky. Cornerbacks Chris Houston and Rahsean Mathis are veterans but prone to errors. Glover Quin and Louis Delmas are above average safeties and give help over top. DeSean Jackson should have opportunities to score. The Lions have allowed 21 passing touchdowns. Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz have been on the field together more often of late, but Tulloch and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy are more than competent in coverage.
You can’t write about the Lions offense without mentioning the name Calvin Johnson first. The Detroit wide receiver is the best in the NFL, a one-man wrecking crew. He’s 6-foot-5 and fleet of foot. Johnson has 72 catches for 1,299 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Eagles will not be able to contain him for four quarters. Last year, Nnamdi Asomugha slowed Johnson for three quarters, but then Juan Castillo mixed up his zones (sort of) and Johnson went all Megatron in the fourth quarter as the Eagles defense unraveled. So Johnson will get his. The Eagles can’t let running back Reggie Bush beat them, too, though. He’s having his best season (854 yards rushing, 448 receiving) and should play despite a knee injury. Inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will be charged with keeping Bush in check. The Eagles haven’t faced a dual-threat tailback of his caliber since Jamaal Charles in Week 3.
Matt Stafford has one of the quickest draws in the NFL. He gets the ball out in 2.47 seconds – fourth best in the league. Nick Foles, by comparison, has a 3.09-second release this season. Stafford has been sacked only 15 times. The Eagles tied a season-best with five sacks last week against the Cardinals, but they’ll be hard pressed to repeat that performance. Trent Cole, Fletcher Cox and the Eagles’ other pass rushers need to get Stafford at least off his footing. He completes only 59.2 percent of his passes and has thrown 14 interceptions.
The Eagles have size at the corner spots to contend with the Lions’ tall ball-catchers, but Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher will get plenty of work. Stafford has thrown more than any other quarterback in the NFL. Brandon Boykin will be on the field a lot in the nickel defense, which is good. The 5-9 slot corner will occasionally get Johnson in the slot (which is not).
Meteorologists are calling for light snow on Sunday. Wind isn’t expected to be much of a factor. Foles hasn’t played much in wintry conditions. Too much can be made of that. He’s been on a roll. I thought the Cardinals’ tough defensive front would give him problems. They did, but it took almost three quarters before they figured out Kelly’s game plan. I don’t know what Kelly has in store for Sunday, but I’ll take him over Jim Schwartz six days out of seven.
Prediction: Eagles 28, Lions 24
What goes right: Foles does enough to suggest he’ll be the Eagles quarterback for the next 1,000 years.
What goes wrong: Suh gives Herremans headaches all day.
The Eagles are playing complete football, and the best evidence of that is starting field position.
During the four-game winning streak, the Eagles’ average starting field position is the 30.5-yard line. Opponents begin on average at the 21.25-yard line. This discrepancy shows that the offense is not turning the ball, the defense is forcing turnovers, and the special teams are limiting big returns. It also allows the defense more cushion and the offense shorter fields.
The Lions present a difficult matchup, but I’m going to stick with the hotter team. The efficiency of Nick Foles and the consistency of the defense are impressive.
Whereas last week the Eagles maximized their tight ends because of the matchup, the passing game will be different on Sunday. Look for more screen passes against Detroit’s wide-nine defense, and look for the Eagles to open up a vertical attack and trying to make more plays over the top. I can see DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy being the top two receivers.
The strength of Detroit’s defense is the aggressive line, so the Eagles cannot allow defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley control the game. Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis, and Todd Herremans will carry considerable responsibility. McCoy will have lanes to run through, but they can close fast. And Detroit has a strong group of linebackers, too, so it’s easy to see the Lions’ No. 3 rush defense. Stephen Tulloch is all over the field, and DeAndre Levy is impressive – especially in the passing game. He has a league-leading six interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, expect the Lions to pass often. There are not enough superlatives to describe how good Calvin Johnson is. Johnson will get his yards, and so will Reggie Bush, who has improved during the past few seasons. (Bush has been dealing with an injury this week and missed Thursday’s practice.) The Lions passing game is especially tough in the red zone. Tight end Joseph Fauria becomes an issue down there.
The Eagles need to generate a four-man rush. If you blitz against the Lions, Stafford can get the ball to Johnson quickly. But if the Eagles can bump Johnson at the line – Connor Barwin might fill this role – and then cover him while generating a four-man rush, they can manage.
Turnovers and field position are key. I’m going to respect the hot streak and go with the Eagles. An 8-5 record with a trip to Minnesota is an impressive spot in December.
Prediction: Eagles 30, Lions 28.
What goes right: Jackson tops 100 yards and McCoy has the most receptions on the team. Foles breaks Peyton Manning’s record of touchdowns to begin a season without an interception.
What goes wrong: Eagles give up four touchdowns for first time in two months. Johnson finds the end zone.