Week 16 pits a pair of teams headed in opposite directions.
The Lions are making a late season push for a second consecutive playoff appearance, while the Bengals are locked in for a second consecutive losing season. Do the Lions have what it takes to travel to Cincinnati and walk away with the victory, or will the Bengals finally be able to defeat an opponent from the NFC North?
We spoke with Chris Lemieux from the Pride of Detroit to find out more about the Bengals Week 16 opponent.
SS: Former Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones seems to be having a very good year for the Lions, leading the team with 970 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. How have the Lions been utilizing him since bringing him from the Bengals, and what does he seem to do well?
CL: It's going to sound heretical, but he fills a role similar to how the Lions used to use Calvin Johnson. That is to say, he competes against jump balls, becomes a deep target threat once a route develops and stays consistent. Now they're nowhere near the same in physical gifts, but they have that similar profile to how they play.
I had concerns about Jones when he first came from Cincinnati given his inability to remain consistent, but he's proven himself to be steady in 2017. His style works well in-tandem with Golden Tate, who fits a very different profile (mid-range passing, gets separation and yards after completion, versatile in the wideout or slot). The two can fit against most defenses, but so far this season it's been Jones who has shown the most production.
SS: The Bengals have given up 366 rushing yards over the last 2 weeks, but face a Lions team whose leading rusher only has 513 yards this year, and who have only seen one 1 running back reach 1,000 yards since 2004. I figure something has to give this weekend – Will the Lions break out with a big performance by their RB’s or the Bengals defense gets a reprieve?
CL: The Lions must establish the run game. The Lions must establish the run game. tHe LiOnS mUsT eStAbLiSh ThE rUn GaMe. Spongebob. I've heard it nonstop early in the season, every time this team shows up with a broadcast crew that knows jack all about how pitiful this team's running history has been since Barry Sanders.
"The Lions have to establish the run game" is said matter-of-factly, this assumption that psychic will and GRIT GRIT GRIT will force it into reality.
That said the Lions did stumble into what looks to appear to be a running offense last week against the Bears, who for all their faults and disasters have at least a memorable run defense. Part of this was injuries that forced Joe Dahl to play, and he earned a remarkable PFF grade for it.
While he did let up a sack and a few pressures, he helped to open up the ground game, and the Lions seem to have decided it's not working with Ameer Abdullah and turned to the usually-catch-first back Theo Riddick and inexplicably fan favorite rookie Tion Green. It worked, to a degree.
It wasn't setting worlds on fire, but it kept the offense honest. Seeing as injuries might have Joe Dahl playing against and Abdullah still seems to be in a dog house, I expect the Lions rush could prove at least "annoying" against the Bengals.
SS: Matthew Stafford is currently the highest paid player in the NFL with his 5 year $135M contract. What is the general consensus from Lions fans regarding his status as the top paid NFL player? Do they feel he is worth it?
CL: He's the highest paid player until someone loses their brains over Kirk Cousins.
And that's the end of it. This is what you do to pay for quarterbacks in the NFL. It's a strange and stupid market but the price of losing your quarterback to an open market, where someone will pay even more for the luxury, is too great a fear for the businessmen and slugs who populate league ownerships and front offices. The money means nothing and to be honest that's fine.
There's three approaches to how Lions fans feel about Stafford's contract:
A. It's the worst thing in the world, and because they're the Same Old Lions they'll crap the bed and the money will remain an intractable albatross strung around the neck of this franchise for 500 years
B. It's the best thing in the world, Stafford is the best thing money could buy and probably a top quarterback at the end of the day and if he could stop getting smacked in the ribs by linebackers he can take this team anywhere.
I guess he's worth it as much as any player in this game is worth something. Get money.
SS: Despite one of the league’s least productive running games, the Lions are one of its highest scoring offenses. What is working well of the Lions on offense, and what can the Bengals do to try to stop it, or slow it down?
CL: Hey, we were just talking about Matthew Stafford, weren't we? It starts with him, and he's got a plethora of weapons in Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron and Kenny Golladay. He's the heart of this strange hydra of ball-throwing.
The Lions are far from the days now where you just lean on that Stafford-Johnson connection. The ball can be spread out quite well, but right now Jones and Ebron are the big recipients of those catches.
Ebron's sudden productivity is a pleasant surprise as well, given how awful his season start was. But with his improved performance, he's fit nicely into a role that was carried out in 2016 by Anquan Boldin: a short-range threat that can pick up chunk yardage and punish the midfield defense, while getting the ball out of Stafford's hands fast.
And the Lions want the ball out of Stafford's hands quick, because this offensive line is one of the worst in the league.
And I suppose any attack against the Lions offense starts there. Getting to Stafford, putting him off his grove and taking advantage of a line that crumples under pressure. After that, it's a matter of taking advantages of the mistakes the Lions make, and boy they tend to make quite a few of them.
SS: The Lions are fighting for their playoff lives, battling with four other teams for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. Do the Lions make the playoffs this year? Do they need to win out and get help, or do they control their own destiny?
CL: This is a question better suited for Jeremy, our managing editor, who sits on Twitter laughing over goat entrails and insisting the Lions have "got this" as long as they win out. Truth is, they need the help, and right now the help has to come in the form of one of the NFC South teams losing at least once. I don't know which one. I hate this math and I hate these games and I hate playoff watching.
I'm far more comfortable saying it's well within the realm of possibility that the Lions can finish 10-6, especially now with news that Aaron Rodgers won't haunt them on New Year's Eve. Of course, I also can very well see 9-7, but that's certainly not a playoff record with the NFL this year.
What the NFC South does I can't scry, but this Lions team will stay competitive to the very end. But even that may not be enough, and what will happen then is every Lions fan screaming (if they aren't already) about the 10 second runoff that damned them against the Falcons.
Thanks to Chris and the crew at Pride of Detroit for their time and insights into the Detroit Lions.