Turkey Day Showdown: Five on the Lions
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The 2015 Philadelphia Eagles remain relevant for only one reason, they play in the moribund NFC East.
The 4-6 Birds will be playing a Thanksgiving Day game for the second year in a row and last year's emphatic victory in Dallas was probably the last time Philadelphia looked like a top-tier team under Chip Kelly.
This time around it's not the Cowboys for Kelly and Co. but the other Turkey Day traditionalists, the Detroit Lions, who are 3-7 after two consecutive wins.
Despite being just one game behind the Eagles, however, the Lions are playing out the string because of the strength of the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.
The struggles in Detroit this season resulted in the firing of the general manager, team president and offensive coordinator but it's the Eagles who will arrive in the Motor City as the team in crisis after back-to-back home losses to Miami and Tampa Bay.
"We lost two games. I think sometimes people panic and throw the baby out with the bath water," Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly said. "I think we have a really good football team, and I'm very confident in those football players."
The futures of both Kelly and Lions mentor Jim Caldwell are both up in the air although Kelly is the one who has an opportunity to change the narrative over the next weeks by righting the ship and winning a bad division. Caldwell, on the other hand, has proven his mettle by making sure a 1-7 team did not give up.
"Everybody thinks it's magic," Caldwell said. "I think you guys look at it as if there's some huge thing that happened that all of a sudden catapulted this cataclysmic change, and the fact of the matter is, it isn't. It's just playing better football."
Here's five things you should know about Caldwell's Lions:
TURKEY DAY REGULARS
The Lions should be the far more comfortable team because they are used to playing on Thanksgiving Day and are 35-38-2 all-time on the holiday. Detroit has also played well recently, topping Green Bay and Chicago by a combined 74-27 score in their last two Thanksgiving Day appearances.
Caldwell's club also recently stopped an ugly 24-game road losing streak to Green Bay in Week 10 before topping an improved Raiders team, 18-13, last Sunday.
"We haven't given up yet," star defensive end Ziggy Ansah said. "We might've started 1-7, but we're going to finish strong."
Conversely the Eagles don't have as much experience on Thanksgiving obviously but they are perfect when they do play on the holiday, moving to 6-0 with the win over Dallas last season.
NO RUNNING GAME
A week after the muscle hamster, Doug Martin, rode his wheel virtually unimpeded against the Eagles defense, the Philadelphia front seven will get a bit of a break against the Lions running game, which is the NFL's worst.
Detroit is dead last in the NFL, averaging just 71.1 yards per game on the ground, a number Martin tripled himself at Lincoln Financial Field last Sunday.
Rookie Ameer Abdullah was carrying the load early and although he's explosive, Abdullah had a tough transition to the pro game and just isn't very effective running through the tackles.
Veteran Joique Bell packs more of a punch but doesn't have nearly as much wiggle and specialist Theo Riddick can hurt you catching the football but doesn't offer much as a runner.
"They're starting to grow Abdullah," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. "He's kind of the guy they're starting to try to feature more, the rookie, and he’s doing a nice job. He's got great speed and quickness."
Philadelphia's embattled inside-linebacking group, specifically the struggling Kiko Alonso should be able to gain some confidence on a short week.
"We've got to do a better job tackling," Kelly said. "We've got to do a better job in our fits in terms of where we're going to be in gap defense."
The Lions promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator and the passing game has taken off a bit as a result.
The major change was stressing protection for the strong-armed Matthew Stafford, whose mechanics tend to break down when he's hurried. It's a solid plan because Detroit's offensive line is weak but the receivers -- Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate -- can do damage on their own in a max protection scheme.
Stafford has completed 64.2 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,607 yards so far with 15 touchdowns. Like Sam Bradford, he's a former No. 1 overall pick with tremendous arm talent that hasn't lived up to his potential. He can make all the throws but those aforementioned mechanical issues, particularly poor footwork and precarious arm angles make him prone to turnovers.
Overall the Lions have the worst turnover differential in the league at minus-10.
The Eagles' defensive backfield had a lot of trouble with the size of Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. It won't get any easier with the king-sized Johnson, one of the most physically imposing receivers in NFL history. The future Hall of Famer isn't quite what he once was but Megatron is 10th in the NFL with 828 yards receiving.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson, who caught touchdown passes of 25 and six yards in last year's 34-17 win over Chicago on Thanksgiving, usually moves all over the field and both Nolan Carroll and Byron Maxwell will need to be at their best to slow down what is the biggest matchup problem they've seen since Julio Jones.
"We've got a challenge with Golden Tate, who moves all over the place and then big boy outside, Megatron, he's always who he is," Davis said. "We have to match up and make sure they're accounted for.
ZIGGY ON THE EDGE
Ansah is the star of a stout front for Detroit and this Ziggy is a lot more imposing than the more famous small, balding comic-strip character.
At 6-5 and 270 pounds Ansah is the kind of rangy, edge pass rusher teams dream of and whomever is playing quarterback for the Eagles on Thursday will certainly have to be aware of the BYU product.
Ansah is fourth in the NFL after recording his eighth sack of the season last week against Oakland and is the first Lions player since Robert Porcher in 2001 to have at least one-half sack in seven of the team's first 10 games.
"Ziggy Ansah is a terrific pass-rusher," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur admitted. "They're real sturdy in the middle with (nose tackle) Haloti Ngata. I think they're starting to play well together. I think they found a combination of guys that they feel good about. Certainly the last two weeks they've played good defense."
973espn.com prediction: The Eagles are rapidly running low on opportunities to turn this season around but expect Davis' defense to rebound, largely due to the Lions' inability to run the football. Eagles 23, Lions 21
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.