Holding an NFL-best 9-1 record, the Houston Texans head to Detroit to face the Lions in their annual Thanksgiving Day game. The Texans escaped in overtime against the Jaguars last week to remain undefeated in their conference and strengthen their grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC. It took two touchdowns in the final six minutes and a career day from Andre Johnson, but the Texans took care of business against the double-digit underdog Jaguars. Now, after expending that effort to come back on Sunday, they go on the road for an early Thursday afternoon game.
At 4-6 and last in the NFC North, the Lions are struggling to repeat their playoff-clinching success of last season. It's hard not to call this game with the Texans anything other than a must-win for Jim Schwartz's club if they want to even be considered in the playoff discussion over the final month. They'll need to snap more than their current two-game losing skid to do so, as they enter as losers of their last eight Thanksgiving Day games.
Meet the Lions
Despite some impressive offensive numbers, the Lions are a disappointing 4-6. They have been in almost every game at the end, but have managed to lose in a variety of frustrating ways, particularly with turnovers and penalties. It won't get any easier against the AFC's best team, but they have to hope they're catching the Texans fatigued and off-guard.
The Lions possess the No. 1 passing attack in the league, averaging nearly 302 yards per game through the air. For the second straight year, Matthew Stafford has managed to stay relatively healthy and the former No. 1 pick is once again putting up gaudy numbers. Stafford was one of three quarterbacks to throw for more than 5,000 yards last year, and he was just 12 yards shy of hitting the 3,000-yard mark in the Lions first 10 games this season. The Texans still have one of the best pass defenses in the league, but they were surprisingly shredded by Chad Henne, Justin Blackmon, and Cecil Shorts last week. If they're still banged up and reeling from that ugly performance, it will be another big day for Stafford.
Of course, the Lions quarterback has the benefit of throwing to the most feared wide receiver in the game. By the league-best standards that he's held to, Calvin Johnson is having a down year when it comes to finding the end zone. But Megatron still leads the NFL with 1,117 receiving yards, and he's coming off back-to-back monster games against the Vikings and Packers. Johnson will most likely be matched up against Johnathan Joseph on the outside, and he'll try to replicate, or exceed, the success that Blackmon had last week. The Lions will need hit on those big plays in the passing game to get the win.
While they do hold the most prolific pass offense in the league, Mikel Leshoure has been able to provide quality support on the ground this season. Facing one of the best run defenses in the NFL, however, it will be up to Stafford and his pass-catchers to move the ball on the Texans defense.
On the defensive side, the Detroit front seven will have to apply pressure against Matt Schaub. Second-year lineman Nick Fairley has been a menace in opposing backfields in recent weeks, and along with Ndamukong Suh, he'll need to get push up the middle to make Schaub uncomfortable. The Lions have been susceptible at times in the secondary, but Louis Delmas might make his return from a knee injury this week. That would be a big boost against a team that boasts Schaub, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster.
Meet the Texans
The Houston Texans are 9-1 and have no glaring weaknesses on either side of the ball. They have excellent run-pass balance on offense and have been solid across the board on defense. But they still had to pull off a late fourth quarter comeback against a woeful Jaguars team, and that Week 11 performance has raised questions as they turn around with almost no rest to play on Thanksgiving.
Schaub is coming off a career day, throwing for 527 yards and five touchdowns in the comeback effort. The Texans defense has been so solid that Houston and Gary Kubiak have not had to rely on Schaub and the passing game as much this season. Last week was the first time he threw for more than 300 yards all year, but he and Johnson proved they can still connect for huge games when the Texans are forced to go to the air.
It was a bit of rejuvenation performance for Johnson, once the league's top receiver who's had doubters stating he's on the decline this year. His 14 catches and 237 yards were both career-highs for a receiver who's been as productive as any over the past decade. Along with Johnson, Schaub likes to target veteran tight end Owen Daniels, who's quietly having one of the best seasons of his career. Daniels leads the team with five touchdown catches and he'll be constantly targeted in the middle of the field against the Lions defense.
Of course, the Texans offense also features one of the NFL's most reliable run games, led by All-Pro Arian Foster. Chris Myers is a dominant center, and the Texans offensive line will have their hands full against Suh and Fairley. But Foster has demonstrated the ability to always find room and be productive. He has had to carry the load almost single-handedly this season, and he leads the league in rushing attempts with 37 more than the next back, Marshawn Lynch. Ben Tate was expected to spell Foster, but he's missed the past three games with a hamstring injury. He could return this week to help out on the ground.
While the offense is full of household names, the strength of this 9-1 Texans team is on the defensive side of the ball. J.J. Watt continues his candidacy for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and leads a team that is in the top seven in the league against both the pass and the run. It's unlikely that the Lions will be able to establish anything on the ground, so the Houston pass defense will just have to rebound from that disconcerting performance against the Jags. Joseph is also nursing a hamstring injury and should be a game-time decision. If he's unable to go, that will provide a big hole in the secondary for Stafford and Johnson to exploit -- the most likely path to holiday cheer in Detroit.
Local Takes: Lions
Jeremy Reisman of Pride of Detroit has an excellent numerical breakdown of all aspects of the matchup on paper, including the Lions pass defense:
I haven't been very high on the Lions pass defense, despite their high ranking all season. The charts have pretty much backed me up all season. But I need to give at least a little credit to the Lions. Despite all the injuries, Detroit has managed to sport an average pass defense all season. They rank 27th in passer rating allowed (94.5), but tied for eighth in yards per attempt (6.8). In terms of pass rush, the Lions have managed 23 sacks, which puts them right in the middle of the league (tied for 16th).
Player to watch: Andre Johnson. Again, it's a bit obvious, but when you're facing a top-five receiver in the league, you better watch him. Chris Houston has done a great job shutting down No. 1 receivers this year, but he hasn't faced anyone the caliber of Johnson.
Local Takes: Texans
SB Nation's Texans blog, Battle Red Blog, highlights the passing game from the other side:
Detroit has a league-low 32 passes defensed, intercepted a fifth-lowest six passes, and are allowing quarterbacks to complete 66.5% of their passes for a 94.5 quarterback rating, which is sixth-highest in the league. That defensive line that Detroit so heavily invested in has 23 sacks, tied for 16th in the league with equally disappointing Buffalo. In other words, the quarterbacks have time to find an open receiver and the secondary cannot stop it. This is good news if you are a Texans fan who just witnessed Matt Schaub go 43-for-55 for 527 yards and five touchdowns. Houston is more than capable of taking advantage of a weak secondary.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Matt Schaub Named AFC Offensive Player Of The Week. sbn.to/TgAOCe— battleredblog (@battleredblog) November 21, 2012
@DaveBirkett - Lions beat reporter
@McClain_on_NFL - Texans beat reporter
The Texans are playing like the best team in football this year, but they are vulnerable. They will need to pressure Matthew Stafford to force him into mistakes, and Houston has had trouble getting a pass rush from players not named J.J. Watt. Detroit's annual Thanksgiving Day game will be close, but it will disappoint the home crowd.
The pick: 31-28, Texans
The Texans opened as three-point favorites on the road, and according to OddsShark, that has gone up a half-point to a point in most places.
With the long week off, the Lions will remain in Detroit and host the Colts in Week 13 while the Texans will go to Nashville for an AFC South game against the Titans.