Passing game will dictate outcome of Lions-Saints battle

The two quarterbacks in this game have combined for 10,514 passing yards and 87 touchdown passes this season. Never in NFL history have two signal-callers with those kind of numbers faced off in a playoff game. As everyone knows, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record with 5,476 passing yards this season. What many people probably don't realize is that Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford was not too far behind him with 5,038 yards. It is reasonable to expect 100 pass plays in this shootout and over 750 passing yards. This game could take four hours to complete.

The Lions are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The Saints, on the other hand, are perennial postseason participants these days and won the Super Bowl two years ago. Detroit put up a respectable 5-3 road record this season, but the Saints are 8-0 in the Superdome. Stafford and Co. are 1-5 against playoff teams, while New Orleans closed out 2011 with a 4-1 mark against postseason participants.

The deck certainly looks to be stacked against the Lions, doesn't it? But keep in mind that Detroit has overcome double-digit deficits to win four games this year. That may be just enough to keep this one interesting.

Here are the three key questions that loom large in this game:

Can either team get to the quarterback?

Sacking Brees is one of the most daunting tasks in this league. It's not quite as hard as, say, winning the lottery -- but it's not far off. Brees has been sacked an average of once every 28 pass attempts this season. He's especially hard to get to in the Superdome, where he only goes down once every 39 attempts. Brees also averages 39 attempts and four TD passes a game at home.

Detroit has a very good pass rush (41 sacks) and actually got to Brees twice during their regular-season matchup, won by the Saints 31-17 in Week 13. Of the 41 sacks they produced, 35 of them came from the front four. That means the Lions can get seven in coverage on every pass play and hope to get coverage on all the great Saints receivers and still effectively get after Brees. The Saints QB is a mid-line passer with a launch point that is consistently five yards behind center. That puts a bulk of the responsibility on Ndamukong Suh, who does a great job of creating an inside push and collapsing the pocket from the interior. That will be an interesting matchup to watch all game as he works against All-Pro guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.

Stafford throws the ball even more than Brees, but he was sacked once every 19 attempts this season. Ironically, he fared better on the road where he went down once every 24 times. Stafford will drop back to pass 48 times in this game. Based on his averages that means two or three sacks, but that might not be enough to slow down a Lions offense that has averaged three passing TDs per game on the road in 2011.

The Saints' pass rush only produced 33 sacks this season, and they tend to be manufactured by scheme calls and exotic blitz packages. Only 16.5 sacks came from the front four, and the team leader was actually safety Roman Harper with four. Expect defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to stay true to form and bring heat from every corner of the field. He will work hard to show Stafford multiple fronts and coverages and try to confuse the QB, but Stafford can burn this defense if he figures out the pressure game.

Advantage: Saints

Did Detroit learn enough from the regular-season game against New Orleans?

In last month's loss to New Orleans, the Lions were done in by a 21-point, second-quarter explosion by the Saints. The Lions controlled the clock and won the time of possession battle by 10 minutes. Stafford threw for 408 yards, but the team punted on its first three possessions. That can't happen again. If the Lions are forced to play catch-up with this Saints offense, they become one-dimensional, which will make things much easier for the New Orleans defense.

The Lions defense will need to use the game film from the first meeting to build a comprehensive coverage plan for this game. In the last meeting, Brees went to Marques Colston often, but when the Lions started to crawl back in the game and got the score to 24-17 near the end of the third quarter, tight end Jimmy Graham was targeted six of the next eight pass attempts.

On offense, Detroit may need to go to Calvin Johnson even more than in the last game. Johnson was targeted eight times, catching six balls for 69 yards. Look for something closer to 12-14 targets this time around, with the hopes of him grabbing at least 10 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

Advantage: Saints

Which team can close out the game on the ground?

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Eventually, one of these teams will have the lead in the fourth quarter and will have to run the ball to keep the other high-powered offense off the field. The Saints know the Lions can come back from a double-digit deficit and will ask their running backs to close out the game. The last time they met, the Saints finished the game with seven runs and just two passes. It seems like the Saints never run out of good running backs. Mark Ingram (on IR now), Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory (who had 19 carries for 127 yards in the last game of the season against the Panthers), and the always dangerous Darren Sproles give New Orleans a full stable of options.

That's bad news for a Detroit defense that has allowed 128 rush yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry this season. Against the Saints, they will have to defend the pass first at every down and distance, which will open up even more opportunities for big plays in the running game.

The Lions' run game has been hurt by the loss of Mikel Leshoure in the preseason and Jahvid Best in the regular season. Kevin Smith has been more than adequate when healthy, but can the Lions close out the Saints by eating up the clock on the ground? The New Orleans defense gives up 108 ground yards per game at 4.95 yards a clip, but is rarely in a position of having a team trying to close them out, especially at home where they averaged 41 points per game.

Advantage: Saints

Prediction

I expect the upstart Lions to test New Orleans early, but look for the Saints to prevail at the end in a high-scoring game and improve to 9-0 at home. Saints 40, Lions 30