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NFL Preview - Detroit (4-10) at Miami (7-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When is it better to have four wins than seven?
Such may actually be the case for the two teams scheduled to square off this weekend at Sun Life Stadium, where the 4-10 Detroit Lions come in with a sense of progress while the 7-7 Miami Dolphins enter with the look of impending uncertainty.
Detroit ended an NFL-record 26-game road losing skid with a 23-20 overtime victory last week at Tampa Bay and will head back to the Sunshine State on Sunday guaranteed no worse than double the two wins it recorded last year, while feeling infinitely better than when it closed the 2008 season at 0-16.
The Lions finish 2010 with a home game against Minnesota next week.
"This year we played a lot of close games, and that experience has helped us," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said. "I don't think we would've won the game we won against Tampa Bay, in overtime, early in the season. But there's something to be gained from the experience.
"There's something to be gained by putting ourselves in the shoes of those teams playing for the playoffs, and going out and finishing the season strong. But not just finishing the season strong, [but] gaining from the experience of battling on the road [against] playoff contenders late in the season."
Detroit's quarterback for down the stretch is a question mark, with No. 3 man Drew Stanton sustaining an injury to his non-throwing shoulder against the Buccaneers and No. 2 Shaun Hill still recovering from a broken finger suffered against New England on Thanksgiving Day.
Intended starter Matthew Stafford has missed seven weeks with a shoulder separation and definitely won't play.
"He's the only guy that is out of the consideration for the starting quarterback spot this week," Schwartz said of Stafford. "We'll have a good idea as the week goes on about the health of our guys and who we're going to go with on Sunday. But we probably won't announce it until we get up to game time for competitive reasons, because those guys [Hill and Stanton] are different and require different game plans."
Hill did take most of the reps with the first-team offense when the Lions reconvened for practice on Wednesday.
For the Dolphins, any game plans calling for high scoring would be welcomed.
Miami lost, 17-14, at home to Buffalo last week, marking the eighth time in 14 games this season -- and third straight time in December -- in which it failed to reach 20 points.
Head coach Tony Sparano's offensive unit was expected to be among the league's best this season after the acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, but it's instead plummeted to 31st in scoring at just 17.1 points per game and 22nd in total yardage (321.1 ypg).
The loss brought Miami's season home record to a brutal 1-6 and officially eliminated the Dolphins from postseason consideration. It also began the swirl of innuendo that Sparano's job could be in jeopardy, particularly if big-name coaches like Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden make it known that they intend to return to the NFL in 2011.
Miami was reportedly on Cowher's wish list of teams to take over if he comes back.
Cowher's career record is 149-90-1 in the regular season and 12-9 in the playoffs, including a Super Bowl title with Pittsburgh to close out the 2005 season. Gruden is 95-81 in regular-season play and 5-4 in the postseason, including a Super Bowl title with Tampa Bay during the 2002 season.
Sparano's regular-season and postseason records are 25-21 and 0-1, respectively.
"I just need to get my team ready to play this week," Sparano said in regards to his job status. "That's all I need to do. That's my concern. Get the team ready to play the Detroit Lions this week. Everything else is out of my control. Let somebody else deal with it."
Miami leads the all-time series with Detroit, 7-2, and has won the last five head-to-head meetings with the Lions. The Dolphins were 27-10 road winners when the teams last met, on Thanksgiving Day 2006, and won by a 49-21 count when the clubs last did battle in South Florida, in 2002. The Lions' only wins in the series came in 1985 and 1991, both at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Sparano and Schwartz will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
According to the numbers, the Lions are decidedly middle of the pack on offense, accounting for 16th-best NFL totals in both points per game (22.0) and total yards per game (342.2). Meanwhile, Detroit climbs to 11th of 32 teams with an average of 239.4 passing yards per week, but drops to 23rd overall in rushing offense with a clip of 102.8 yards per game. The Dolphins' defense has carried a stagnant offense all season, holding elite-level spots in scoring (18.6 ppg, eighth overall), total yardage (298.0 ypg, fourth), passing (201.4 ypg, sixth) and rushing (96.6 ypg, sixth).
Stanton had a career-high 252 passing yards last week and would be aiming for a third consecutive winning start if he's given the nod. Hill, meanwhile, has passed for 608 yards in his past two games against the AFC. Running back Maurice Morris rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers, while backfield mate Jahvid Best is the only rookie with 400-plus rush yards (497) and 400-plus receiving yards (411) this season. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson had 10 catches for 152 yards last week and is first Lion with two seasons of 1,000-plus and 12-plus receiving touchdowns. He has 11 receiving scores in his past 11 games and 29 since 2008, tied for second-most in the NFL. Johnson has 209 receiving yards in his past two matchups against the AFC and aims for a third contest in a row against that conference with a touchdown. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew ranks third among players at his position with 64 catches, the most in a season by a Lions tight end. Return man Stefan Logan is fourth in the NFL with a 28.0 kick return average and fifth overall with a 12.0 punt return average. He's the only player to rank in the top five in both at the moment.
For the Dolphins, outside linebacker Cameron Wake has an NFL-best 14 sacks this season and needs one more to become the sixth Dolphins player with 15 or more in a season since 1982.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
In spite of its personnel, success for Miami in moving the ball has been hard to find. The Dolphins are 31st among 32 teams with an average of 17.1 points per game and 22nd in the league with a total yardage average of 321.1 per game. Their passing attack clicks a few spots up to 17th in the league with a 217.9 per game yardage rate, while the run average of 103.2 yards per week is only good for 21st. That said, the Lions haven't exactly been proficient at stopping foes. Detroit is 19th in the league in scoring defense (23.5 ppg), 21st in total defense (347.2 ypg) and 13th (220.7 ypg) and 24th (126.5 ypg), respectively, against the pass and run.
In his past three games against the NFC, Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne is 3-0 and has completed 49-of-83 passes for 517 yards with four touchdowns, one interception and an 88.3 passer rating. Running back Ronnie Brown has 15 career 100-yard rushing games and needs just one more to surpass Larry Csonka for the second-most in Dolphins history, behind only current teammate Ricky Williams. Wide receiver Marshall had a season-best 11 receptions last week and aims for a third straight game with a touchdown catch. Marshall (71 receptions) and Davone Bess (71) are the first Dolphins duo to reach 70 receptions in a season since Mark Clayton (70) and Mark Duper (70) in 1991. Bess leads the AFC and is second in the NFL with 26 catches on third down.
Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh leads NFL rookies with eight sacks, the most ever by a Lions' first-year player, and needs three more to pass Dana Stubblefield's NFL rookie record of 10 1/2 sacks. End Cliff Avril has seven sacks in his past six games and counterpart Lawrence Jackson has 4 1/2 sacks in his past five contests. Jackson aims for a third game in a row with a sack.
In the Detroit backfield, Morris has warranted consideration of late, while Johnson on the outside is among the league's best. Even kicker Dave Rayner is a dark-horse call, though a stingy Miami defense may limit his opportunities. For the Dolphins, Henne, Marshall, Bess and the defense are the strongest bets, though not necessarily in that order.
A home game against an inferior opponent is usually a recipe for a big victory, but in the case of the Dolphins -- who've won just once in seven games at Sun Life Stadium this year -- it's more of a referendum on how much they'll continue to play for an embattled coach. Expect Sparano to circle the wagons at least one more time in South Florida before heading to the season finale in New England next week, and to who knows where after that.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 27, Lions 17
12/23 11:17:31 ET