The Detroit Lions head down to the Epicenter of country music, Nashville, where the Tennessee Titans will attempt to get their first win of the 2012 season. Although Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton have put the capital of Tennessee back in primetime, it’s the winless professional football team that has Volunteers on the edge of their seats.
Both the Titans and Lions are coming off West Coast road losses in Week 2 as Tennessee was embarrassed by San Diego and Detroit was man-handled by San Francisco on Sunday night.
Will the Titans once again have an Achy-Breaky Heart Sunday night? Or will it be the men from Motown who conceal Tears Of A Clown? There are five keys to Sunday’s contest at LP Field that will most likely determine the outcome.
Pour yourself a tall glass of Gentleman Jack and break open a Moon Pie; here is The Van Etten V…
I - Lions Passing Game vs. Titans Pass Defense:
Matthew Stafford has had his struggles early in the season, committing four turnovers in the first two games. He should get back on track against a Titans defense that has relinquished five touchdowns through the air and has given up an impressive 118.5 average QB ranking to Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, fourth worst in the NFL.
Stafford can spin it in a similar fashion and should get comparable results. Expect Calvin Johnson to find the end zone for the first time this season.
II - Titans Passing Game vs. Lions Pass Defense:
Chris Palmer’s spread offense was supposed to get points on the board, but so far this year the Titans’ passing game has been more mule than thoroughbred with a league-worst 23 total points. Averaging only 219 yards/game, Jake Locker and his receiving corps need something to get the aerial attack going and the Detroit Lions’ defense may be the perfect elixir.
Detroit will get Chris Houston and Bill Bentley back this week, but that’s the highlight of the secondary. The Titans will counter with WRs Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and rookie Kendall Wright, a formidable threesome. Combined with TE Jared Cook, there is too much talent on the Titans side of the ball for the Lions to cover.
If Locker can be marginally accurate and find the mismatch, expect the Titans to have their best passing game of the young season.
III - Lions Rushing Game vs. Titans Rush Defense:
Week 3 marks the return of running back Mikel Leshoure to the Lions, while his first NFL rushing attempt has yet to be made. The coaching staff feels Leshoure is a difference maker, but this remains to be seen.
The 4.2 ypc Tennessee gives up should make for a nice introduction to the NFL for Leshoure, especially if the Titans keep the majority of their secondary focused on Calvin Johnson, like the 49ers did last week.
This is the rare occasion that the Lions may have the advantage in the running game, but don’t expect Detroit to take the ball out of Stafford’s hands too often.
IV - Titans Rushing Game vs. Lions Rush Defense:
Chris Johnson has been the biggest disappointment in fantasy football this year. Managing a paltry 21 yards on 19 carries, the running game has been nothing more than a quarterback sneak. Hell, Tim Tebow had more yards rushing on one carry (22 @ PIT) than Johnson has had all year.
But Johnson is capable of going the distance every time he touches the ball and the Lions have shown they still cannot defend the “Wham” or trap block. Johnson has averaged more explosion rushes than any back the last two years - it’s not a matter of if, but rather when Johnson gets going.
V - Intangibles:
Sunday marks the return of Jim Schwartz to Tennessee. The former defensive coordinator of the Titans will share the homecoming with Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Tulloch, two defensive starters for Detroit that were plucked from the Titans by Schwartz himself.
The Titans are still looking for their first win and realize and an 0-3 start will put the season in jeopardy. Detroit will be facing a desperate team in their own backyard.
On paper, Detroit should win this game comfortably. But if the Arizona Cardinals taught us anything last weekend it’s that there are no guaranteed wins in the NFL. This game has all the makings of a home dog upset. There’s a reason Vegas has this game at 3-1/2 points, not 7. A weak Lions’ secondary combined with a pass happy Titans’ offense should keep Tennessee in this game deep into the fourth quarter.
If the Lions have truly turned the corner, this game shouldn’t be a contest. But a last second win at home and a reality check in San Fran has me cynically thinking I need to see more.
Detroit sports radio should be in a fury come Monday morning as Sunday’s game will leave more questions than answers about a football team expected to make a playoff run this year.
Tennessee 24, Detroit 23
James Van Etten is a syndicated sports columnist previously featured or linked on forbes.com, mlive.com, usatoday.com & yahoo.com
Follow him on Twitter @jbvanetten