Posted: Friday January 6, 2012 10:53AM ; Updated: Friday January 6, 2012 12:38PM
Peter King
Peter King>GAME PLAN

Lions hope smarter approach a winning strategy in Saints duel

Story Highlights

Lions look to play smarter vs. Saints after committing 11 penalties in earlier duel

Matthew Stafford has averaged more passing yards than Drew Brees in last five

Matt Ryan has lost his first two career playoff games by a combined 78-45 score

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Safety Chris Harris (right) and the Lions defense face a tough task against a Saints passing attack that scored three touchdowns in New Orleans' Week 13 win over Detroit.
Safety Chris Harris (right) and the Lions defense face a tough task against a Saints passing attack that scored three touchdowns in New Orleans' Week 13 win over Detroit.
Manny Flores/Cal Sport Media

"There's a reason they made us the prime time game Saturday,'' Detroit safety Chris Harris said Thursday. "This is gonna be a good one.''

Detroit-New Orleans II, a rematch in the same building of the Saints' 31-17 win 33 days ago. Why I think it'll be closer (though a New Orleans win), and why I see it as the game of the weekend:

• Detroit won't be as stupid. Mantra around the Lions this week, after they committed 11 penalties for 107 yards (three of them totally moronic) in the first meeting: "Play smart. Eliminate penalties.'' All week, coach Jim Schwartz has told the team, basically, that they'll be in the game for 60 minutes if they don't play dumb. I agree.

• After a terrible start, Detroit's defense played Drew Brees pretty well in Game 1. In the second half of the December meeting, the Saints had the ball five times in the second half. Results: punt, punt, touchdown, punt, lost the ball on downs. Problem was, the Saints had shredded the Detroit D on the way to a 24-7 halftime lead. Brees: 252 yards in the first half, 90 in the second half.

• The cavalry is coming, sort of. Enforcer safety Louis Delmas of the Lions didn't play in that first game. He'll play Saturday night after missing five games with a partial MCL tear.

• Drew Brees might be the hottest quarterback in the league, but he's got competition -- from Matthew Stafford. Average yards passing per game, last five games: Brees 357, Stafford 384.

• The Saints didn't stop the Lions in that first game; the Lions stopped themselves. Detroit outgained New Orleans by 28 yards. Three offensive pass interference penalties on the Lions crippled them, as did two missed Jason Hanson field goal attempts.

Those are the kind of plays, if made differently, that could turn Saturday's game: The Saints held a 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter in Game 1, with the ball at their own 33. Brees dropped back, hesitated, looked like he might throw for Jimmy Graham across the middle, but then let fly deep for Robert Meacham, alone on cornerback Eric Wright. The pass was complete, and the cat-quick Meachem juked around Wright for the touchdown.

"They had what we call a 'tank' formation,'' said Harris. "Two tight ends, two backs. And I thought he'd go to Graham, so I jumped the route. If I'd stayed with Meachem, I could have helped Eric, and I don't think that play happens. All my fault. When you have in all of these games only a handful of plays that determine the outcome, you can't make plays like that. In a game like this, you can't have too many 'my bads' this week.''

The Saints have scored 42, 45 and 45 points the last three weeks, and called off the dogs in two of those three games in the fourth quarter. The Lions can, and should, make it a game in the fourth quarter, but only if they play smart and Stafford doesn't make mistakes.

Tall orders for the first Detroit playoff game for everyone on the roster except kicker Jason Hanson, especially with no perceivable running game to help the offense. But I see the Lions in this game deep into the second half. I see the Saints winning, though, because of Brees, his weapons and a much healthier running game than the Saints had a year ago at this time.

Player You Need to Know This Week

Pittsburgh C Maurkice Pouncey (No. 53). With the resurgent Brodrick Bunkley creating havoc in the middle of the Denver line as the primary run-stopper, and with Rashard Mendenhall out for the year with a torn ACL, the Steelers face a tough time controlling the line of scrimmage ... especially with the flare-up of Pouncey's high ankle sprain at practice this week. Pouncey missed practice Thursday and told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was frustrated with how bad the ankle felt. If Pouncey can't go, hold-the-fort backup Doug Legursky starts. That's not an optimal situation for a team that has been sputtering on offense the last month.

Ten Things I'll Be Looking For This Weekend

1. The status of Jeff Fisher. After his interview with St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke and Rams COO Kevin Demoff in Denver Thursday, Fisher is going to decide between the Rams and Dolphins, barring a last-minute change of heart, or more aggressive move by the Bucs. Two points for Fisher to consider: He can make more money in Miami. And Miami doesn't have a long-term quarterback.

2. The other coaching jobs. Miami's going to wait for Fisher's call. (Convenient, isn't it, that Miami has requested permission to talk with Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin this weekend while the Dolphins are fact-finding on future quarterbacks, and free-agent-to-be Matt Flynn of the Packers just threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns the other day.) Tampa Bay likes Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay and Texas A&M coach. Jacksonville likes Joe DeCamillis, the Dallas special teams coordinator. Kansas City likes Romeo Crennel. But all are still knee-deep in searches. We shall see.

3. Eric DeCosta. My buddy Don Banks said it right the other day: While everyone's focused on the future of Fisher, DeCosta, who sits at the right hand of general manager Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, has more teams after him -- his own, plus St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis -- to run their front office. DeCosta' will have to decide, and soon, whether he wants to be Newsome's heir for a very handsome salary or whether he wants to seek his fortune and build somewhere else ... maybe starting with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. I think DeCosta will choose Baltimore sometime this weekend, but stay tuned.

4. Tim Tebow "cutting loose.'' John Elway wants to see Tebow make some throws he hasn't made yet for the Broncos in the playoff opener against Pittsburgh. My question there is: If Tebow felt confident enough to make those throws, don't you think he would have made them by now? This is sort of along the line of what NFL Films maestro Greg Cosell wrote this week: Tebow is letting too many "open'' throws pass him by; he's not throwing the passes most quarterbacks in the league would throw as a matter of course, apparently not feeling he has enough of an open window to make them. The Steelers' pass-rush could influence those windows this weekend.

5. The mobility of Big Ben. Roethlisberger tweaked his ankle against the Browns last week. If the Steelers get upset at Denver, there's going to be a lot of second-guessing Pittsburgh's decision to play Roethlisberger at San Francisco the week after he suffered his high-ankle sprain.

6. Matt Ryan and the playoffs. Ryan has 30-24 and 48-21 playoff losses staring at him in his only two postseason games. This one won't be easy, facing the best pass-rush of the 12 playoff teams, and on the road at the Meadowlands this weekend. But eventually he has to get off the playoff schneid if he wants to justify the Falcons' faith in him.

7. Dominique Franks. Who? That's the Falcons' slot corner who could end up seeing a lot of Victor Cruz in coverage Sunday. No. 24. You might be seeing a lot of his back on TV. In the last two months, Cruz has made a lot of corners chase him.

8. Andy Dalton. He and T.J. Yates will be starting their first playoff games against each other Saturday in Houston, and it'll be interesting to see whether Dalton has his legs under him. He was in a Cincinnati hospital Thursday with the flu. Hmmm. Thursday. That's 48 hours and a plane flight away from a playoff game. Bad timing.

9. The Houston D. Suddenly it's turned mortal. Time to turn Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed loose, Wade Phillips.

10. More mayhem around the Jets. When you have the third-string quarterback, Greg McElroy, ripping his teammates for a culture of selfishness, you know the ripping is really getting good. Stay tuned.

Peter King's Midweek Report: Wild Card Weekend
Source: SI
SI.com's Peter King looks at some of the most intriguing storylines heading into Wild Card weekend.

 
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