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Lions visit Saints in primetime battle of NFC contenders

(Sports Network) - If there was a defensive lineman who could wreak havoc on Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, it would be Detroit Lions All-Pro Ndamukong Suh.

Jimmy Graham hopes to continue his outstanding second pro season with the Saints against the visiting Lions (Photo: Parker Waters).Jimmy Graham hopes to continue his outstanding second pro season with the Saints against the visiting Lions (Photo: Parker Waters).

For Brees' sake, Suh will not be anywhere near the field of play for Sunday's showdown between the Saints and Lions at the Superdome, and he may not be available for the following week's contest versus Minnesota. Suh was suspended for two games this week after blatantly pushing Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith's head to the turf a couple of times, then stomping on his right arm during a 27-15 loss to the Packers on Thanksgiving.

"We were formally informed this morning of the league's decision to suspend Ndamukong Suh for two games," the Lions said in a statement. "We respect the process the league undertook in order to arrive at this decision."

Suh's well known for playing with a reckless abandon and even visited with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a few weeks ago to get a better feel on how he should approach the game. Fines and penalties are beginning to add up for the ferocious second-year pro, and his presence will be missed up front. He is expected to appeal the suspension and could possibly have it trimmed to one game, but for now the Lions will have a rotating door at defensive tackle against the Saints.

Rookie Nick Fairley has yet to live up to his first-round selection back in April's draft and has been bothered by a foot injury all season. He has played in each of the last three games and said he is in his best shape right now. Head coach Jim Schwartz feels Fairley has been contributing nicely during his limited time and said his big tackle will be ready for the extended reps.

"I think Nick has played very well as the season has gone on and taken steps along the way," said Schwartz. "He's ready for these reps, for sure. He's had an impact on games and he's the healthiest he's been."

Even with Suh, the Lions defense has been average for much of this season, as the unit is 23rd against the run and 18th in points allowed. With New Orleans next on the docket, it will be important for Detroit's interior line to disrupt Brees as much as possible. Defensive tackles Corey Williams, Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen are expected to rotate up front with Fairley for the Lions, who have alternated wins and losses over their last five games and are tied with Chicago for second in the NFC North behind unbeaten Green Bay. The Packers appear headed for a division title, leaving both the Lions and Bears fighting for a Wild Card berth.

Detroit may be able keep up with the Saints offensively in large part to quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have scored no more than 19 points in each of their four losses this season, but have lit up the scoreboard by accumulating an average of 36 points in the seven victories.

The Saints know a thing or two about scoring points and are second in the league with an average 32.9 per game. They just drilled the New York Giants at home by a 49-24 count on Monday night and Brees is starting to make a case for MVP of the league. He and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are the top two candidates for the honor.

Brees and the Saints are first in the NFC South, one game ahead of Atlanta, and racked up 577 yards of offense -- the second-highest total in team history behind a 595-yard explosion against Cincinnati in 2006 -- against New York. Brees had four touchdown passes and no interceptions and also ran for a score. He threw for 363 yards to reach the 300-yard mark for the eighth time this season. His 3,689 yards on the year leads the NFL, and the veteran quarterback is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards.

Brees, who came close to Marino's record in 2008 with a career-best 5,069 yards, instead has his sights set on Detroit.

"I expect perfection," Brees said after Monday's win. "I understand that's impossible to achieve. Deep down, I know there's some things I can do better.

"After [Tuesday], we have to put this [last win] behind us and it's on to Detroit. There's never a time to rest and never a dull moment."

New Orleans has been anything but dull lately in posting three straight wins and will look to stay unbeaten at home (5-0) this season. It is averaging 42 points per game as the host this season and may need to keep up with the Lions, since the defense hasn't been so spectacular, especially against the pass. The Saints are 27th in pass defense and 25th in yards allowed. The Giants' Eli Manning just threw for 406 yards and two scores against Gregg Williams' group, which could be in for a see-saw battle with Stafford and Johnson.

SERIES HISTORY

New Orleans took a 10-9-1 lead in its overall series with Detroit by virtue of a 45-27 triumph at the Superdome in the 2009 regular season opener, and also routed the Lions by a 42-7 count at Ford Field during Week 16 of the 2008 campaign. Detroit's last victory over the Saints took place in San Antonio in 2005, a 13-12 decision that was the last of three straight wins by the Lions over New Orleans. That string began with a 14-10 ousting at the Superdome on Sept. 3, 2000.

The Saints' Sean Payton has won both his two previous meetings with the Lions as a head coach, while Schwartz lost his only prior encounter with both New Orleans and Payton with that 2009 result.

WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL

Stafford (3,119 passing yards, 26 TD, 13 INT) hasn't been protecting the football lately and was intercepted three times by the Packers in Week 12. He has been picked off two or more times in each of the previous three games with a total of nine picks over that span. Giving the ball back to the Saints on Sunday would not be a wise choice for the Lions, who are right up there with New Orleans in points (4th overall), passing yards (6th) and total yards (9th) per game. Stafford has thrown for a career-high in yards this season and Johnson (63 receptions, 1023 yards, 12 TD) has been the main recipient. The 6-5, 240-pound wideout caught four passes for 49 yards last week and also hauled in his NFL-leading 12th touchdown catch of 2011. Johnson eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second straight year and third time in his career as well, and will give the Saints headaches in the secondary if they're not prepared for his athleticism. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (54 receptions, 3 TD) and wide receiver Nate Burleson (46 receptions, 2 TD) are Stafford's other weapons in the passing game. Detroit's ground attack has seen better days with Maurice Morris (240 rushing yards, TD) and Kevin Smith (195 rushing yards, 2 TD) now running the show with top running back Jahvid Best out for the year with a concussion. The two combined for just 75 yards against Green Bay, and Smith is doubtful to play this week due to an ankle sprain.

Saints cornerback Jabari Greer (46 tackles, 1 INT) said after Monday's win that Stafford is a quarterback who has a strong arm and can make all the throws. He added that his teammates have a challenge ahead of them not only with Stafford, but also Johnson at wide receiver. Greer said it will be an opportunity to step it up against one of the best in the business and that now is the time to "make your mark." Linebacker Will Herring had the only interception of Manning against the Giants and cornerback Patrick Robinson (34 tackles) leads the Saints with just two interceptions on the season. New Orleans hasn't created many opportunities on the defensive side of the ball and is only 17th against the rush, 20th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed and 27th in pass defense. Plenty of film study on Stafford and his tendencies could help create chances for this somewhat porous defense. Detroit doesn't have intimidating running backs, however, and the Saints did limit New York to 73 yards rushing. Safety Roman Harper (73 tackles) is tops on the team in both stops and sacks (seven), while veteran defensive end Will Smith (25 tackles, 6 sacks) had the only sack of Manning on Monday.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

Brees (3,689 passing yards, 27 TD, 11 INT) seems to flirt with the record books every season and continues to impress on a week-to-week basis. He has led the Saints to a 13-2 record in November since 2008, and the team improved to 18-0 under Payton when not committing a turnover in Monday's win. As is the case with the Lions, the Saints can't afford to give the ball away this week against a high-scoring opponent. Detroit has a dangerous offense as well and can light up the scoreboard with the best of them. Brees is one of the best at doing just that and recorded his 45th game with 300-plus yards passing as a Saint. He reached the 350-yard mark for the sixth time this season on Monday, tying an NFL mark for the most such games in a season, and has thrown a touchdown pass in 38 straight games, the second-longest streak in NFL history. Johnny Unitas holds the NFL record with 47 consecutive games with a touchdown strike. Brees also extended his own NFL-record streak of games with 20 or more completions to 31 against the Giants. Tight end Jimmy Graham (67 receptions, 957 yards, 8 TD) has hauled in a team-high 67 passes and leads all NFL tight ends in receptions and receiving yards. He is closing in on his first 1,000-yard season as well. Marques Colston (45 receptions, 667 yards, 3 TD) is one of a handful of wide receivers that Brees has at his disposal, while running back Darren Sproles (62 receptions, 3 TD) is both a running and receiving threat. He is third on the team with 402 rushing yards behind rookie Mark Ingram (420 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Pierre Thomas (403 rushing yards, 3 TD).

Detroit did its best to contain the high-powered Packers and still surrendered 27 points, with Rodgers compiling 307 yards and two touchdown passes. That's still not too shabby considering how well polished the Packers are this season. Linebacker Justin Durant (39 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive end Cliff Avril (24 tackles, 7 sacks) each had a sack on Rodgers on Thanksgiving, while Avril leads the team in that category and has five sacks and four forced fumbles in his last five games. The Lions, who are 23rd against the run (127.3 ypg), must apply pressure up front to have any chance in this matchup. Veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (26 tackles) and backup lineman Lawrence Jackson (22 tackles) have six and five sacks, respectively, and will be counted on to harass Brees as well. It will be a big day for Fairley (6 tackles) at defensive tackle, since all eyes will be on him with Suh out. Corey Williams (22 tackles, 2 sacks) is having a solid year at the other tackle spot and linebacker DeAndre Levy (81 tackles, 1 INT) leads the team in stops. Cornerback Chris Houston (46 tackles) has a team-best four interceptions, while counterpart Eric Wright (50 tackles) and safety Amari Spievey (44 tackles) are tied with three picks apiece. With Houston questionable due to a knee injury, the secondary will have its hands full with all of Brees' targets.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Johnson joined Lance Alworth and Jerry Rice as the only players with 12 or more touchdown receptions in three of his first five seasons. He is Detroit's best option at beating the Saints in their own backyard, but only happens if Stafford is on his game. In what's expected to be a high-scoring affair with little defense, the Lions have a strong shot for an upset if their quarterback plays well.

Is there anything the Lions can do to slow down Brees and his many targets? Sure, but they will have to cause problems up front in the absence of Suh. Brees has to be elated knowing that he won't have to keep looking for No. 90 bearing down his back and is usually up to any challenge regardless. Fairley will get his chance to shine under the bright lights of the Big Easy, and Detroit needs the rookie to step up.

New Orleans rumbled for 205 yards rushing against the Giants and will look to duplicate that performance this weekend. The Lions are giving up 127.3 rushing yards per game and will find it tough sledding if they have trouble against Ingram, Thomas and Sproles when containing Brees is at the top of the agenda.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Whether Detroit pulls off an upset or not, the absence of Suh will have an impact either way. The Lions are a talented bunch mainly because of their offense, but will need the defense to pull out all of the stops Sunday in the Big Easy. That means playing perfectly against Brees is a must, but unfortunately it will be an impossible task for the upstart Lions. New Orleans is clicking at the right time and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight, unless it's at Lucas Oil Stadium for Super Bowl XLVI.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 38, Lions 27

 

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