[Editor's note: The Patriots won 34-9]
With only six weeks remaining, NFL teams are beginning to face must-win scenarios if they hope to make the playoffs. In the NFC, barring spectacular runs from the Bears or Rams, the top eight are fighting for only six spots, and reigning champions Seattle Seahawks are running out of time to make a push. In the AFC, the teams are bunched tighter, but there is little doubt that the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, or Indianapolis Colts will miss out, leaving a group of teams to fight for a Wildcard spot.
The premier game of Week 12 pits the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions (7-3) against the AFC East-leading Patriots (8-2) at 1 p.m. Eastern time Sunday. The Patriots are the hottest team in the AFC over the last seven weeks, just recently notching a prime-time win against the Colts on Sunday Night Football. In that game, the Patriot rush attack dominated, but over their remarkable run it has been stability at the quarterback position that has made the difference.
It didn't look that way, however, at the start of Tom Brady's 15th season. Through four weeks, Brady struggled, averaging 198 yards per game and only 5.77 yards per pass, throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions. Fast-forward to Week 12 and the Brady-led Patriots have won seven in a row and lead the league in offensive pass efficiency, jumping the Broncos this past week. Brady has been remarkable over that time, throwing for 310 yards per game and 8.19 yards per attempt, with 20 touchdowns to only three interceptions. It is usually a bad idea to count out touchdown Tom.
Detroit comes off a loss in Week 11 in which the offense was held in check by a stingy Arizona Cardinals defense. In contrast to recent years, this Detroit team controls the game with their defense and the team leads the league in yards allowed per game at 290.3. They are particularly dominant against the run, allowing only 68.8 yards per game and three yards per carry. Football Outsiders contributes stats that delve deeper and, in analyzing the defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh, they find that the Lions have the highest percent of running plays stuffed at the line, 27 percent, and are among the best at stopping runs at the second level and in the open field.
The match-up to watch will be All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson lined up against Darrelle Revis, the premier one-on-one defender in the league. Johnson was hurt or had been playing hurt for five games this season before returning two weeks ago and catching seven passes for 113 yards. His timing and explosiveness are not back yet, but he is still a handful for any cornerback. Talking about Johnson, Revis told reporters at NBC Sports he’s expecting to be challenged.
“He’s a man amongst boys out there. You see it all the time. The dude’s 6-foot-6, 230 pounds. And he runs a 4.3. That’s pretty freakish.”
If Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford have a rhythm, and the run defense forces the Patriots to be one-dimensional, the Lions could play this game close. Still, given the recent play of Tom Brady, and that the Patriots are dominant at home, fans should expect the Patriots to pull this close one out.