If anyone would’ve said a decade ago that the top game of Week 11 in the NFL was a matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals, they would’ve been mocked for heresy. In the near century of professional football’s existence, there have been very few times that a Lions and Cardinals matchup has been touted as one of the most intriguing. Both teams date back to the NFL’s Bronze Age, yet both teams have also struggled immensely throughout the years. But now, as of Week 11 of the 2014 season and with a prime 4:25pm slot, the Lions and Cardinals will meet for the 65th time as the two top teams in the entire NFC.
The numbers don’t lie; both teams are playing phenomenally this year. The Cardinals enter the game coming off a 31-14 shutoff of the Rams last week and maintain the NFL’s best record at 8-1. Arizona has won its last five games with its only defeat coming to the hands of the Broncos. Along the way, the Cardinals have beaten perennial contenders; namely the Eagles, Cowboys, and even the Chargers for what it’s worth. But above all, QB Carson Palmer has had one of his most efficient years, throwing 11 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions and completing nearly 63% of his passes in six starts. Add in the dual emergence of WRs Michael Floyd and John Brown behind Larry Fitzgerald and Arizona has a receiving corps that harkens back to the potency of Fitzgerald-Anquan Boldin-Steve Breaston during the 2009 Super Bowl run. Yes, the Cardinals have had a meritorious season thus far, but for the first time in a while the Lions will have an inherent edge going to Phoenix for a few reasons.
It all starts with Palmer, who is now done for the year with his second major season ending ACL tear. The Cardinals’ air-attack has been decent at best this season, averaging 247 yards per game and ranked 13th in the NFL. But with MSU alum Drew Stanton taking the reins, Arizona’s passing threat will surely suffer next to its already poor 29th ranked rush offense. Granted the Cardinals have converted nearly 45% of third downs this season (6th in the NFL), but it will be hard to expect Stanton to lead the 24th ranked total offense and red zone efficient offense against a Lions defense that has been playing better than ever.
For the Lions, defense will undoubtedly be Detroit’s point of leverage against the Cardinals. Eleven weeks into the season and Detroit is still the NFL’s number 1 total defense, allowing just 283 yards per game. Factor in that the Lions are conceding less than 16 points per game on average (1st in the NFL) and are also in the top five in rush defense, pass defense, third down defense, and red zone defense and it becomes luridly clear that the Cardinals’ good-but-not-great offense will face its stiffest challenge yet. With six weeks to go, LB DeAndre Levy has 86 tackles and has been a run stopping machine all season. Yet beyond Levy is the defensive front, held up by DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley with DEs Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah as well as reserve role player George Johnson; an entire unit that has primarily garnered 26 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, along with 9 fumbles forced. If one thing remains true of the Lions’ defense, it is that the front seven will give Stanton anything but any easy time tomorrow.
On offense, expect the Lions to keep momentum rolling following their dramatic 20-16 comeback against the Dolphins last week. The offense has been slow for much of the season, currently 24th in points per game, 19th in total offense, second to last in rushing yards per game, and overall occupies the middle of the pack for third down efficiency, red zone efficiency, and giveaways. The slow production has been exacerbated by WR Calvin Johnson’s absence and RB Reggie Bush’s up and down injury battles, but following comebacks against the Saints and Falcons, the Lions started to come alive last week with a far fuller production against Miami. For Detroit, which ranks 9th in passing offense, the healthy duo of Johnson and WR Golden Tate will be QB Matthew Stafford’s calling card against Arizona. As Johnson showed his old form last week, Tate has been a top caliber player in virtually every receiving department throughout this season. With 66 catches for 909 yards and averaging nearly 14 yards per snag (despite only 3 touchdowns), Tate has played on-par and better than other NFC dynamos like Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant. With RB Joique Bell still struggling, expect Stafford to utilize Johnson, Tate, and Bush against the Cardinals’ 30th ranked pass defense. The Lions’ offense may have its own issues, but on paper there are few offensive units that can compete with Detroit’s talent; against Arizona all the conditions seem conducive for the Lions to use it.
Date: Sunday, November 15th
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Stadium: University of Phoenix Stadium (63,400 capacity)
Television Broadcasting Team: Chris Myers (Play-By-Play); Ronde Barber (Color); Jennifer Hale (Sideline)
Detroit Radio: 97.1 The Ticket WXYT-FM
Radio Broadcasting Team: Dan Miller (Play-By-Play); Jim Brandstatter (Color); Tony Ortiz (Sideline)
Detroit vs. Arizona Regular Season Record: 33-26-5
Last Meeting: 9/15/2013; Detroit 21 – Arizona 25 in Phoenix
Record in Detroit: 20-10-3
Record in Arizona: 13-16-2 (0-4 at University of Phoenix Stadium)
Out: DT Nick Fairley (knee), G Larry Warford (knee)
Questionable: RB Reggie Bush (ankle)
Probable: TE Eric Ebron (hamstring), TE Joseph Fauria (ankle), S James Ihedigbo (back), WR Calvin Johnson (ankle), LS Don Muhlbach (ankle), TE Brandon Pettigrew, DE Devin Taylor (knee), T LaAdrian Waddle (knee)
The Lions have historically carried a bad spirit with them to the desert, but with Calvin Johnson’s health and the Cardinals’ poor pass defense, this could be a major breakthrough week for Matthew Stafford and company. Drew Stanton isn’t capable of leading the Cardinals deep into the playoffs, and especially isn’t capable of propelling an average offense to victory against the Lions’ supreme defense. Detroit’s front seven has been waiting all week for this outing, while the Lions’ offense is now looking at a new audition to re-prove itself as one of the NFL’s best. With the number one seed on the line for the NFC, the Lions will need to use every ounce of leverage they have in their favor. Against a team like the Cardinals, this could be the best time to do that.