For most of the season, this was one of a couple of games Falcons fans probably penciled in as a win, no matter how dour one’s outlook might be. The Jets and the Lions have been bad for a while now and weren’t showing any signs of getting better throughout the year, so it felt like it would take a rock bottom effort from Atlanta to lose this.
It no longer feels like that, and while it’s not particularly fun to think of the Falcons losing at home to the Detroit Lions, it’s going to make for a more interesting game. The Lions have two wins in their last three games and just knocked off the Cardinals, so it’s not unreasonable to think they can come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and keep the good times rolling against a Falcons team with readily identifiable weaknesses.
The Falcons, of course, will hopefully have something to say about that. Here’s a look at the matchup ahead.
Falcons - Lions rankings
Falcons - Lions Comparison
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Neither of these teams rank well relative to their peers, mostly because neither of them are all that good. The Lions are a bit worse defensively and offensively in most of these categories, but they have been the more effective team running the football, which will likely be a factor Sunday. Their point differentials are even eerily similar, with the Lions at a robust -123 and the Falcons at -126. These teams are more similar in terms of their results than we’d like to admit, at least everywhere but the win column.
One interesting note is that the Lions are one of the 10 most penalized teams in the NFL and the Falcons, despite what I would have believed before looking it up, are one of the 10 least penalized teams in the league. If it comes down to a costly penalty, Detroit might actually be the team making it.
How the Lions have changed
This year was full of major changes for Detroit. Matt Patricia is gone, to the delight of what I can reasonably assume is every single Lions fan, and has been replaced by knee biting enthusiast Dan Campbell. He’s brought good energy to a team reeling from years of bad coaching after Jim Caldwell was fired, and also this little connection to Matt Ryan really blew my mind a bit.
Matt Ryan made his debut against the Lions on September 7, 2008. Falcons beat Detroit that day. Lions TE Dan Campbell caught 1 pass for 21 yards in the loss. Unfortunately, that was the final catch of Campbells career as he went on IR two days later. Sunday, they meet again.— Dan Miller (@DanMillerFox2) December 21, 2021
Matthew Stafford is also gone, with the best quarterback in Detroit franchise history off to the Rams in a big trade that brought back Jared Goff. As you’d expect, Goff has not exactly been lights out for this rebuilding team, but he’s been steady enough that the Lions offense is starting to get a little traction. It’s hard to imagine this team building around him even though he’s just 27, but at worst he’s a capable bridge for 2021 and perhaps 2022 while Detroit builds up the roster.
The Lions were not huge spenders in free agency, but their acquisitions under new general manager Brad Holmes have proven to be savvy ones. Holmes, you’ll recall, was in the running to be Atlanta’s general manager and wound up in Detroit after Atlanta hired Terry Fontenot. His additions of former Falcon Charles Harris (a team-leading 7.5 sacks), ex-Packers running back Jamaal Williams (nearly 600 combined yards and two touchdowns as D’Andre Swift’s backup), former Titan Kalif Raymond (463 receiving yards, three touchdowns, and nearly 11 yards per punt return), and Tim Boyle (alive, throws a football) have all worked out nicely for Detroit. Not all their signings have panned out, but Harris in particular stands out as a coup.
In addition to Goff, Holmes pulled off a late round pick for Michael Brockers, who has been stone solid while starting every game for this retooling Lions defense.
The draft class hasn’t been productive across the board, but Penei Sewell has been terrific as a rookie starter on this offensive line and Amon-Ra St.Brown is the team’s leading receiver and looks like a gem for the next quality Detroit offense. Sewell in particular will be a foundational piece for the Lions for a long time.
Overall, Detroit put together a solid offseason as they try to climb out of the deep hole they’ve become way too accustomed to being in. Time will tell whether it works out, but this appears to be a franchise finally heading in the right direction. I can’t cheer about that this Sunday, given that I want the Falcons to beat them, but it’s hard not to want good things for a long-suffering Lions fanbase.
What to know
Detroit won’t roll over. If they’re down Jared Goff and D’Andre Swift it will likely be difficult for their offense to keep pace with even a reasonably competent Falcons effort, but they didn’t beat the Cardinals by accident. A healthy Detroit team is going to provide a strong rushing attack, a halfway decent passing attack perfectly capable of picking apart Atlanta’s soft defensive underbelly, and a defense that can punish this team’s all-too-frequent mistakes.
It’s the ground game that you’ll need to keep a close eye on. Swift is deadly, Williams is a good complement, and ex-Falcon practice squad back Craig Reynolds just tore a hole in that Cardinals defense behind this line when pressed into emergency duty. Given that the Falcons just got shoved around and allowed Jeff Wilson to have a huge day last Sunday, Detroit has to be salivating at this matchup. Until the Falcons show they can stop the run, the Lions will lean on it, and they may well ride it to victory.
The Falcons will try to do the same thing in reverse. It obviously killed Arthur Smith not to be able to run effectively against the 49ers, but the Lions run defense is one of the worst in the NFL and Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis can take advantage of that if the blocking is even halfway decent. This may well prove to be another rushing-based slugfest like we saw in Carolina.
I don’t think Atlanta’s awful track record at home means they’re doomed, and I don’t think Detroit is a good football team just finding its footing. I just think the Lions are playing better football of late and the Falcons have only won recently against bad teams playing mistake-laden games. so this is far from a sure thing for Atlanta. The hope for the Falcons is that they can avoid costly mistakes and squandered scoring opportunities and come out of this weekend with their first home win, but at the risk of repeating myself, it’ll take a more complete effort than we’ve seen of late.