The Denver Broncos haven’t played a postseason game since winning Super Bowl 50 over the Carolina Panthers after the 2015 season.
Denver fans have been frustrated as their team has missed the playoffs in seven straight seasons, the second-longest active drought in the NFL (New York Jets, 12 seasons).
Fans of the Detroit Lions don’t want to hear any complaining.
While the Lions’ six-year playoff drought is just behind the Broncos’ slump at six seasons, Detroit infamously has not won a postseason game since January of 1992, falling short in 31 consecutive seasons.
Both teams find themselves in the thick of a crowded playoff race and will be looking to bolster their postseason resumes when they face off on Saturday night at Ford Field (NFL Network).
The Lions (9-4) sit in first place in the NFC North and, dating back to the midpoint of last season, have won 17 of their last 23 games. But Detroit has dropped two of its last three, including last week’s 28-13 loss to the Chicago Bears, and its once-staunch defense has allowed an average of 29.8 points over the last five games.
“It’s not the Super Bowl, but the urgency is there,” Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone told reporters earlier this week. “It’s coming down to the wire and we have an opportunity to win the North and get into the playoffs.”
The Lions offense remains good overall, ranking third in the NFL at 390.3 net yards per game, but even that side of the ball has slipped.
Jared Goff, who was the model of consistency during his team’s 5-1 start to the season, has had a passer rating under 70 in three of the last seven games. While the yardage numbers on offense have remained healthy, the Lions have gotten sloppy, committing 10 turnovers over their last four games.
Most Games with Three or More Turnovers
- Las Vegas Raiders (6)
- Cleveland Browns (5)
- Detroit Lions (5)
- Denver Broncos (4)
- Minnesota Vikings (4)
- New York Jets (4)
It’s no secret that coaches hate turnovers, and Dan Campbell will sure stress ball protection leading up to Saturday’s matchup.
Denver’s defense, however, is as good as any in the league at flipping possession.
- Denver Broncos (24)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (24)
- Buffalo Bills (23)
- San Francisco 49ers (23)
- New Orleans Saints (22)
- New York Giants (22)
After a disastrous start, the Broncos have improved drastically defensively and that turnaround has fueled a 6-1 run after starting the season 1-5.
Denver allowed 70 points in a single game to the Miami Dolphins in NFL Week 3. Over the last eight games, the Broncos have allowed a total of 128 points.
Total Points Allowed, Past 8 Games
- Minnesota Vikings (120)
- Denver Broncos (128)
- San Francisco 49ers (137)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (140)
- New England Patriots (141)
The Broncos defense posted another solid performance in last week’s 24-7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, albeit mostly against backup quarterback Easton Stick.
Goff and the Lions will present a larger challenge on Saturday, and sportsbooks view Detroit as a 4.5-point favorite at home. Our prediction model agrees that the Broncos will have their work cut out for them, making the Lions the best bets with a 64.9% chance of hitting the 10-win milestone for the first time since 2014.
DEN Key: Find Courtland Sutton
With Denver’s defense performing so consistently over the last two months, it has often been the offense that has been the deciding factor.
Sean Payton’s Broncos are 6-2 when they score more than 20 points this season, with the two losses coming in Weeks 2 and 5. Since mid-October, they are undefeated when they get to 21 points and are winless when they fall short.
With points at a premium, wide receiver Courtland Sutton has emerged as Russell Wilson’s most potent weapon. Sutton’s 10 touchdown receptions trail only Miami’s Tyreek Hill and he’s done it without any multi-score games.
While Sutton has gotten into the end zone with consistency all year, he is making even more impact plays now than he was earlier in the season. In the first eight games, he had just two receptions of 25 yards or more. Over the last five games, however, Sutton has seven big-play catches.
Standing at 6-foot-4, Sutton has always had a knack for making contested catches in traffic, but the former second-round pick has improved at getting separation from his defender. His 65.4% burn rate and his 11.98 burn yards per target this season are both well above average for the position.
Sutton has done some of his best work in the red zone, and his eight red zone touchdown receptions lead the NFL. Denver’s leading receiver again appears to be a good candidate to touch paydirt against a Lions defense that ranks 27th in red zone burn-allowed rate (55.2%).
Add the fact that Detroit’s defense leads the league in stopping the run on first down, and the Broncos could be served well by calling Sutton’s number early and often in this showdown.
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Attempt on First Down
- Detroit Lions (3.46)
- Houston Texans (3.63)
- San Francisco 49ers (3.69)
- Tennessee Titans (3.74)
- Miami Dolphins (3.75)
DET Key: Establish the Run
Detroit shocked the football world by selecting undersized running back Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th overall pick in April’s draft, especially after the team had already signed David Montgomery in free agency.
Draft philosophies aside, Gibbs and Montgomery have been a devastating duo to opposing defenses. Gibbs is forcing 0.197 missed and broken tackles per offensive touch this season, ranking fourth in the NFL among running backs with at least 100 touches.
Montgomery’s numbers don’t always pop off the page, but he is averaging 4.78 yards per rush, eighth among qualified running backs, and has scored 10 touchdowns in 10 games.
Gibbs and Montgomery combined for 132 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss to the Bears, but the pair had only 21 combined carries despite the game remaining close until the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Lions are averaging 5.97 yards per carry in the first quarter (the third-best mark in the league), but are only calling 6.8 first-quarter rushes per game – tied for 10th.
Establishing Gibbs and Montgomery on the ground early could help an interception-prone Goff and appears to be the best way to attack Denver’s defense. The Broncos are allowing 3.4 yards before contact on the ground this season.
One important fulcrum in this game could be Detroit’s first-down play-calling.
The Lions have been excellent on first down this season, run or pass, and are averaging nearly 7.0 yards per play on first down.
Average Yardage on First Down
- San Francisco 49ers (7.45)
- Detroit Lions (6.72)
- Miami Dolphins (6.67)
- Tennessee Titans (6.38)
- Seattle Seahawks (6.12)
NFL play-callers love throwing the ball on first-and-10 more than ever before, and first down has proven to be the most productive passing down for offenses.
But while a first-down rush can feel like a lost opportunity for some teams, it is a weapon for the Lions. They’re gaining 5.5 yards per play on designed runs in the first quarter, ranking second in the league.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson can wear down Denver’s defense and avoid costly turnovers by Goff with a game plan that features his two-headed backfield monster.
The Lions and Broncos have positioned themselves to end agonizing playoff droughts this season, but Saturday’s game is crucial to both sides.
The Lions have a two-game lead in the NFC North but face tough road tests against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys in the coming weeks. A loss to Denver could signal the continuation of a mid-season slide.
Not long ago, the Broncos were an afterthought in the playoff picture, but they now sit just a game back of the suddenly vulnerable Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. With an easy schedule to close out the regular season, a win over Detroit could propel Denver into division contention with the reigning Super Bowl champions.
For two franchises that haven’t played many important games in recent years, the stakes are refreshing.
“You want to play the big-time games,” Broncos safety Justin Simmons said this week. “Pressure is privilege.”