Five things to watch: Cardinals at Lions

Detroit News

After a walkoff win for the ages, the Detroit Lions were sent plummeting back to earth Sunday in Denver as the rushing tandem of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon punched a Bronco-sized hole in the Lions’ hopes of winning consecutive games.

And now, in the Lions’ last game before Christmas, a gang of merry men dressed in red ride into town hoping to deliver a heaping lump of coal to the people of Detroit — we’re talking the Arizona Cardinals, folks.

They’re the league’s best road team by a long shot, and Kyler Murray and Co. have an axe to grind after dropping a pivotal NFC West matchup to Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night.

Bah-hum-bug!

Can the Lions deliver a miracle on Brush Street in the second-to-last home game of the season? We’ve got you with five things to watch for this week’s Lions-Cardinals showdown.

1. [Enter any position here] carousel

Whether it be injuries or illness, the Lions are no stranger to the phrase ‘next man up.’ The cornerback, running back, and at times, the offensive line positions have frequently been forced to sub in practice squad players throughout the season.

And they’re now without one of the players that took on the responsibility better than anybody: Undrafted cornerback Jerry Jacobs. Jacobs’ unusual rise was certainly something to watch during the dog days of the season — and so is the struggle to replace him, as a knee injury in the loss to Denver ended his breakout year.

There’s also opportunity to be had at tight end. Starter T.J. Hockenson had his season ended by thumb surgery, meaning the time is now for undrafted tight end Brock Wright, who caught his first-career touchdown pass in the Week 13 win over Minnesota.

With so many starters still out of the lineup, there’s ample opportunity for fringe players to get on the coaching staff’s good side ahead of camp next season.

Who will step up?

2. Out for vengeance

We’re not saying the Lions don’t have a chance to beat the Cardinals on Sunday, but let’s dig into the facts.

Arizona enters Sunday tied for the league’s most wins (10) and can clinch a playoff berth with a victory. It’s 7-0 on the road, with all of its wins coming by double digits and an average margin of victory of 16. And it is fresh off of a loss to a division rival. By all accounts, this is a get-right game for the Cardinals — but it’s also, in some contexts, a must-win, as the Cardinals were knocked out of a first-round bye in the loss on Monday.

And lastly: The Cardinals just bought a team plane. This trip to Detroit will be its maiden voyage. Nothing says ‘We’re done messing around.’ like purchasing a private aircraft from the kind people at Boeing. Expect some extra motivation to be there for the Cardinals.

3. Punching up

We bring you down with those facts about the Cardinals to bring you back up with these surprisingly positive facts about the Lions.

Detroit is 8-5 against the spread this season — a pretty remarkable feat for a team that has just one win — and with the exception of a couple shellackings here and there, have been mostly competitive no matter who the opponent is.

Arizona’s leading pass catcher DeAndre Hopkins (knee) is out, which alleviates some pressure on Detroit’s battered defensive backfield, although the Cardinals’ depth at wide receiver goes toe-to-toe with anybody in the league.

The Lions have not lost to the Cardinals in four straight meetings. Detroit picked up its first win of the season in 2020 when it upset the Cards in Arizona a season ago. Those things don’t matter a whole lot when the talent disparity is as clear as Sunday’s Lions-Cardinals matchup, but still. Something to watch for.

4. Keep that run game rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

If there’s anything that’s gone truly right for the Lions this season, it’s the development of rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell.

He was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded offensive tackle in Week 14, and has played a big hand in Detroit having one of its best seasons rushing the football since Barry Sanders was pounding astroturf at the Silverdome; the Lions are averaging 4.6 yards per carry as a team through 13 games for the first time since 1998.

But it’s not just Sewell paving the way. The entire offensive line deserves a round of applause for the way that it’s progressed throughout the season, as Taylor Decker has had a strong return from injury, Evan Brown has done an excellent job of replacing the injured Frank Ragnow at center, and the Lions’ guards are doing their part in creating massive holes no matter who’s running through them.

D’Andre Swift (shoulder) has already been ruled out and Jamaal Williams is still on the COVID list, but Craig Reynolds — who had a career-high 83 rushing yards on Sunday — and Jermar Jefferson have stepped into the role seamlessly at times of need this season.

And with Hockenson out, the Lions’ reliance on the run game will only be stronger down the home stretch.

5. Could that be us?

Things move fast in the NFL. If you don’t stop to look around every once in a while, you might get caught up in thinking that the Lions will be a bad football team forever.

And historically, you might be correct. But optimistically? Arizona can be an inspiration — the antidote to a Lionized brain that’s convinced the sole purpose of football is to make people of Detroit feel miserable and ashamed.

The Cardinals won just one playoff game between 1976 and 2007, before making a magical run to the Super Bowl off a 9-7 season in 2008. And since? They bottomed out, built back up to a team capable of reaching the NFC conference title game in 2015, bottomed out again, and built back up to being one of the league’s up-and-coming juggernauts in 2021, which is how they’ll enter Sunday’s game at Ford Field.

If there’s anything that can be gleaned from the Cardinals’ up-and-down over the last 13 years, it’s that all it takes is one season to change a culture; to set the precedent that the next time you’re on a big stage, you do belong.

So when you’re watching the Arizona Cardinals hang 50 on Detroit this weekend (hypothetically), don’t think “Why me?” Think, “Could that be us?”

Even if it’s a cockamamie idea, it’ll help temporarily alleviate the pain. And isn’t that all we’re really looking for, anyway?

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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