THE FIFTH DOWN; Defenses Give Edge to the Giants and the Steelers

Lions (10-6) at Saints (13-3)

Saturday, 8 p.m.

Line: Saints by 10.5

From the birth of the N.F.L. until 1960, no quarterback ever threw for more than 3,000 yards. As recently as 1997, it was still possible for Jeff George to lead the league with less than 4,000 yards passing: 3,917, to be exact. For most of football’s history, a 3,000-yard season was an accomplishment, 4,000 yards were a feat and 5,000 yards marked the distance from home to the nearest hardware store, not an attainable passing goal.

Saturday will mark the first time that two quarterbacks who threw for over 5,000 yards in a season will face each other. While Drew Brees – who broke Dan Marino’s single-season record by throwing for 5,476 yards – is getting his due as one of the league’s best passers, Matthew Stafford (5,038) could not even muster a Pro Bowl selection. Stafford’s numbers are partially a reflection of passing inflation, but he has also been unfairly overshadowed this season, not just by Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to be the N.F.L.’s most valuable player, but by his own team’s tortuous climb out of a decade-long funk, the acrobatic excellence of his best receiver and his defense’s attempt to jump-start the economy by increasing the demand for yellow penalty flags.

When the Lions have the ball The Lions use shotgun formations on 68 percent of all offensive plays, the highest percentage in the N.F.L. (the league average is 40.1 percent). Stafford’s primary weapon, Calvin Johnson, was the third-most targeted receiver in the league with 158 passes. (Atlanta’s Roddy White and New England’s Wes Welker finished first and second.) Johnson compensates for the Lions’ poor running game by doubling as the team’s top threat in the red zone: he has caught nine touchdowns passes on plays that start inside the 20-yard line. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler also make great short-yardage options (10 combined red-zone targets), and they work underneath so the rookie receiver Titus Young can supplement Johnson as a deep threat. The Lions have running backs, but they ignore them, and you can, too.

Gregg Williams’s blitz-heavy defense yielded just 33 sacks and 16 takeaways this season. Only the Patriots and the Packers allowed more passing yards than the Saints, and they compensated by producing 31 and 23 interceptions to the Saints’ nine. Many of those passing yards were the result of opponents trying to keep pace with the Saints’ offense, but Williams does not have the same manpower he had when the Saints reached the Super Bowl two years ago.

When the Saints have the ball Whole articles can be filled with impressive Brees statistics, but we will settle for one: his completion percentage over the last three seasons is 69.9, better than all but three quarterbacks have ever mustered in a single season. Sean Payton’s offense makes the most of Brees’s accuracy and ability to distribute the ball to legions of potential targets. Nine different players have caught at least 10 passes for the Saints this season, led by Jimmy Graham, a college basketball forward turned mismatch nightmare at tight end. Despite their reputation as a pass-happy team, the Saints often line up in the I-formation and pound the ball. Saints running backs combined for 2,127 yards, and Brees’s long touchdown throws are often set up by play-fakes.

The Lions’ notorious defensive line recorded just 36 sacks this season, though they committed 43 penalties in the process. The Lions rarely blitz, so while their sack totals are low, Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and their linemates provide enough pressure for Jim Schwartz to keep seven defenders back in coverage, minimizing the risk of breakdowns.

Pick In what will probably be a shootout, the Lions’ inability to run the football and their tendency to spot opponents 100 penalty yards will matter much more than their lack of postseason experience. Saints

Bengals (9-7) at Texans (10-6)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

Line: Texans by 3

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