The Detroit Lions (10-6) are finally back in the playoffs, but have a tough task ahead of them as they face the New Orleans Saints (13-3) at the Superdome in the Big Easy on Saturday.
The Lions have just one playoff win since 1957, and this weekend's wild card game marks their first trip to the playoffs since 1999.
In their last meeting with the Saints in New Orleans on Dec. 4, the Lions were within a touchdown going into the fourth quarter before losing, 31-17. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw an interception, and Detroit had 11 penalties for 107 yards. Otherwise, the Lions amassed more total yards and first downs than did the Saints.
The Lions were also without some key defensive players, such as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who was serving a two-game suspension, and defensive backs Chris Houston and Louis Delmas, who both had knee injuries.
Despite losing an essentially meaningless game to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the Lions have been hot, winning two close games against the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders, and blowing out the San Diego Chargers.
Stafford has proven to be a force following injuries. The 23-year-old quarterback threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, while completing 63.5 percent of his passes. He was intercepted twice against the Packers, but had previously gone three straight games without a pick.
It may not be too hard to rack up big yards when Stafford has perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL. Calvin Johnson had a career regular season, with 96 receptions, 1,681 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Brandon Pettigrew is coming off a strong season, as well. The 26-year-old tight end caught 83 passes for 777 yards in 2011.
Where the Lions are weak is in their ground game. Due to injuries, Detroit have relied on running back Kevin Smith, who only has one game where he rushed for more than 100 yards. Smith has been upgraded to probable due to a high ankle sprain.
The Lions head into their first playoff game with a rather healthy squad, aside from safety Chris Harris, who is listed as doubtful, and running back Jahvid Best, who is on injured reserve. Head coach Jim Schwartz will be fortunate to have that edge going into the weekend, after being undermanned against New Orleans in December.
The Saints are looking to erase their last playoff game from their memory. Last season, New Orleans made an early exit from the postseason with a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, who had finished the regular season with a 7-9 record.
This season, New Orleans is riding high due to an Most Valuable Playerlike performance from Drew Brees. During the regular season, the veteran quarterback threw for 5,476 yards and completed 71.2 percent of his passes.
As notable as Brees' season has been, the Saints have one of the best all-purpose backs in football in Darren Sproles. The former Charger replaced injury-plagued Reggie Bush, and he posted 603 yards rushing and 710 yards receiving. Sproles is capable of giving almost any opposing defense fits.
The Saints also have some exceptional players catching Brees' passes. While Sean Payton usually has wide receivers who rack up big yardage, second-year tight end Jimmy Graham has been a revelation in New Orleans. The 6-foot-6-inch star caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards, to go along with 11 touchdown receptions.
Marques Colston remains a weapon for the Saints. The big-play wide receiver missed two games this season, and still nearly set a career high in yardage. Colston caught 80 passes for 1,143 yards, and scored eight touchdowns.
The Saints not only had a big season, but they also finished strong. New Orleans won their last eight games, and defeated opponents by an average margin of more than 17 points.
LINE: New Orleans is favored by 11 points.
OVER/UNDER: 59.5 points
PREDICTION: This game may be closer than many people think. The Lions are close to full strength, and were the victims of their own errors when the two teams met in December. Expect Stafford to test the Saints' secondary by throwing to Johnson early and often. He will probably have no choice, as the Saints should probably contain the Lions' running game. New Orleans is playing at home, and they're hungry to go deep into the playoffs, so expect them to run an efficient offense and to hold off the Lions' late charge.
PREDICTED SCORE: Saints over Lions, 35-33