NFL Preview - Detroit (5-2) at Atlanta (2-5)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL is up to its marketing ways again and will send the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons to London for a showdown Sunday on the hallowed grounds of Wembley Stadium.
The league is hoping to build a strong following overseas and has two reputable franchises representing the sport on foreign soil.
Detroit enters the United Kingdom tied for first place in the NFC North with a 5-2 record, while the Green Bay Packers boast an identical mark. The Lions have put a major emphasis on defense this season and were able to squeeze out a 24-23 win over the visiting New Orleans Saints last weekend.
Down 23-10 with minutes left in the game, the Lions rallied for 14 points on a pair of touchdown passes from Matthew Stafford, including a 73-yard connection with Golden Tate. Stafford's five-yard touchdown pass to Corey Fuller put Detroit ahead for good with 1:48 remaining. The touchdown was set up by Glover Quin's interception of Saints QB Drew Brees and some help on fourth down.
Facing a 4th-and-5, Stafford attempted a pass to Reggie Bush and it fell incomplete, but a pass interference call on New Orleans, its 12th penalty of the game, gave Detroit new life. Stafford then connected with a leaping Fuller to give the Lions their fourth win in five weeks.
"When we needed plays at the end of the game we got them," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. "It was one of those games where you keep preaching to the guys to hang in there and keep fighting."
It was the second straight game, and win, the Lions played without star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson has been bothered by a high ankle sprain and is in London with his teammates. Johnson's status for Sunday's game in unknown and the one who goes by the moniker "Megatron" has 348 yards and two touchdowns on 22 receptions.
"I'm working to get a feel each and every week, working every day," Johnson said. "If I'm good enough to play, I'm going to play. So I'm gonna leave it at that."
Johnson was limited in practice Wednesday.
The loss of Johnson hasn't been much of a strain on the Lions, whose defensive unit is one of the best in the league. The Lions are first in yards allowed (290.3), second in both rushing yards (73.4) and points allowed (15.0), and third in sacks (21.0) and interceptions (8). Quin has three interceptions, one in each of the last two games, and George Johnson leads with four sacks.
Ezekiel Ansah has recorded 3 1/2 sacks and Ndamukong Suh owns three.
Detroit, which is the only team in the NFL allowing less than 300 yards per game, will enter its bye week following its UK excursion.
The Falcons will also have their bye after Sunday's game and have lost six straight outside the Georgia Dome. Even though they are the designated home team at Wembley Stadium, the Falcons will still be away from the comfortable confines of home.
"We're our own enemy. Being on the road is not an easy environment to be in, so we've got to continue to acclimate ourselves," Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi said. "There are only a few more games left in the season; we need to continue to fight and get better."
Atlanta is still in the hunt in the NFC South at 2-5 and suffered its fourth straight loss Sunday in a 29-7 setback in Baltimore. The defense has given up no less than 27 points in each of the past four losses and is arguably the main reason why Atlanta is three games under .500.
The Falcons are 27th against the run (137.7), 29th in pass defense (274.4) and 30th in both yards allowed (412.1) and points allowed (28.4). They are one of three teams in the NFL permitting 400 or more yards on defense.
"We have nine games left and I know every man in that room and every coach in that room will work their (butts) off this week to get prepared to play the Detroit Lions," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "I have no doubt what the makeup of these football players and coaches and the organization we have in Atlanta."
Smith's team was 2-1 at one point following a 56-14 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 18. A meeting with the Lions may solve Atlanta's woes, as the Falcons are riding a three-game winning streak in this series and are 23-12 overall. The Falcons posted a 31-18 win on Dec. 22, 2012 and were led by Matt Ryan's four TD passes and no interceptions.
Ryan is 3-0 in his career against Detroit.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White hauled in eight catches for 153 yards and two scores. Stafford threw for 443 yards with no TDs and Johnson caught 11 passes for 225 yards. Stafford needs one more touchdown pass to break Bobby Layne's team record of 118.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both the Lions and Falcons have struggled running the football, and Caldwell gave his take on why.
"We just haven't been as consistent as we'd like," Caldwell said. "We haven't blocked consistently well enough, we haven't run it consistently well enough with the ball in our hands. There's a number of different things. The blocking includes not only lineman, not only tight ends, the lead back or whomever it might be but then also on the flanks as well, the receiving corps.
"So, all of it, we're constantly in an evaluation mode with that trying to find out what suits us best in terms of what we do best. That's been the struggle, so we just have to stay after it."
The Lions average 82.4 rushing yards per game and Joique Bell leads the team with 274 yards and three touchdowns on 84 carries. Bush has 171 yards and a score on 49 totes this season and five TDs in last five games against the Falcons. Look for the Lions to try and get that ground attack going against a weak Atlanta defense.
"It's really close," Bell said of the ground attack. "If you look at it on film, it's just one glitch that keeps us from having that explosive run, which is going to lead to more. We're right there, we just need to get over that hump."
But as Caldwell said, the Lions should do what they do best and that's play defense and throw the football.
Golden Tate blew up for 154 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions versus the Saints and has taken over for an injured Johnson. Tate leads Detroit with 649 yards and 38 receptions, and is confident in his abilities.
"I don't think anyone has more confidence in themselves than I do," Tate said. "There's not many things I think I can't do on a football field.
"I expected to come here and be a compliment to Calvin. Obviously, didn't expect Calvin to be out for a few weeks, but that's the game of football. I've taken it personal to step up and try to take on his role and help this team win."
So far, so good for Tate.
The Falcons can chuck it up, too. Ryan has two dynamic receivers in White and Julio Jones. Jones leads the team with 676 yards, 49 catches and is one of three players with three receiving scores, joining White and Antone Smith. Jones has been slowed a bit the last few weeks, compiling 68 yards in a loss to Chicago on Oct. 12, then posting 56 yards last week against the Ravens.
Jones hasn't reached the end zone since that blowout win over Tampa Bay. White recorded his franchise-best 58th career touchdown reception Sunday to break a tie with Terance Mathis. Michael Turner holds the record with 61 total TDs.
As for their running game, the Falcons have an aging Steven Jackson (285 yards, 2 TD) and Smith (136 yards, 2 TD). They are 23rd in rushing (98.1).
Atlanta has to do a better job protecting Ryan, who was sacked five times in Baltimore and four times versus the Bears. Ryan has been sacked 15 times this season, while his counterpart Stafford has been taken down an NFL-high 24 times. Ryan will have another new center this week in undrafted rookie James Stone. Stone takes over for Peter Konz, who landed on IR this week with a knee injury suffered at Baltimore.
Center Joe Hawley is also on injured reserve.
"I thought James Stone did a great job of coming in and filling in for Peter," Ryan said. "It's been one of the things that, this year, guys have had to step up and come in and play, especially on the offensive line, through some injuries."
Each team has to get acclimated with the time difference, field conditions, facilities, awful food and so on in London. By the time the game starts, though, the players and coaches should be adjusted and ready to go.
"Our business is to go over there and get ready to play certainly a hungry Atlanta team in a game that means a lot to us," Caldwell said with first place in the NFC North on the line. "We've got our work cut out for us."
The Falcons and their offensive line have their work cut out as well facing Detroit's menacing defensive front with Suh, Ansah, Johnson, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones. DeAndre Levy is a stud linebacker on the outside and the team's leading tackler. The secondary could be challenged with Jones and White.
Detroit will keep pace with Green Bay in the division with a close win over Atlanta and may even take over the top spot because the Packers play Brees and the Saints in the Big Easy Sunday night.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Lions 24, Falcons 20
10/23 15:05:11 ET