While the New England Patriots have achieved the best record in the AFC with an elite offense, the Detroit Lions find themselves in first place because of the NFL’s No.1 defense. The two teams will pit their contrasting styles against each other when they meet in Week 12.
The Patriots are playing as well as any team in the league, led by the conference’s top offense. Even the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts haven't matched New England’s 32.2 points per game average, which continues to increase during a six-game winning streak. In each of the last three games, the Patriots have scored at least 42 points.
Detroit’s defense has been just as dominant as New England’s offense. No team allows less than the 15.6 points per game that the Lions surrender. The unit hasn’t given up more than 24 points in a single game, and the Lions are the only team that has allowed fewer than 3,000 yards in 2014.
If New England’s offense wants to prevail over Detroit’s defense, it will have to rely on Tom Brady and the passing game. Running back Jonas Gray had the biggest game of any player last week, rushing for 201 yards and four touchdowns, but he isn’t likely to be nearly as effective in Week 12. The Lions sport the NFL's top run defense, and they’ve surrendered more than 76 rushing yards just once.
Brady’s worst games in 2014 have come against top defenses. The Patriots lost to the Chiefs and Dolphins, who have the league’s No.2 and No.4 scoring defenses, respectively. In those defeats, Brady has posted season-low passer ratings of 59.9 and 69.7, throwing two interceptions and completing just 54 percent of his passes.
However, New England’s offense hasn’t simply improved because of the level of competition it’s faced. The Patriots only scored 16 points against the winless Oakland Raiders in Week 3, but the unit has turned things around since the start of their winning streak.
The MVP-caliber play by Brady was jumpstarted with a fully recovered Rob Gronkowski. The tight end posted his first 100-yard game of 2014 in Week 5, and New England hasn’t lost since. In that time, Gronkowski is averaging 97.8 yards and a touchdown per game.
Calvin Johnson might be the best wide receiver in football, but Gronkowski has proven to be more important to his team’s offensive success. Johnson appears to finally be healthy, leading the Lions in receiving over the last two weeks, but Detroit went undefeated in his three-game absence. Since his return in Week 10, the Lions have totaled just 26 points.
The Lions have held every opponent to 24 points or less, but they haven’t scored more than 24 points since the season opener. The 31st ranked rushing attack has been the offense’s Achilles heel, and the Patriots thrive when opposing teams can’t run the ball. New England allowed 398 total rushing yards in their two losses, as well as 218 yards on the ground in a two-point win over the Jets, but they’ve given up an average of 69 rushing yards in seven of their eight wins. Reggie Bush plans to play after missing Week 11 with an ankle injury.
New England is unbeaten at home since the 2012 season, and they are seven-point favorites over the visiting Lions. The over/under is 48 points.
PREDICTION: New England over Detroit, 30-20