Five things to watch: Lions at Falcons

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

As Justin Rogers chronicled earlier this week, the last three matchups between Detroit and Atlanta have produced finishes that would likely leave you saying, ‘This game is drunk.’ Well get ready to break out that egg nog, because conditions are prime for another sloppy sequel.

FiveThirtyEight gives Atlanta just a 2% chance of still making the playoffs. Detroit’s quarterback is likely out, as are most of the weapons intended to help him. These two teams aren’t playing for much besides pride and draft position.

So in this week’s five things to watch, we’re going to encourage that you decompress from the Christmas season by having a nice seat on the couch, pouring yourself some nog, and putting on ... Netflix? 

Lions running back Craig Reynolds is caught by Cardinals defensive backs Jalen Thompson, top, and Deionte Thompson (22) during the second half last Sunday in Detroit.

1. Star of the show — for now

Those Craig Reynolds jokes will get old eventually, but today is not that day. 

The running back who goes by ‘Netflix’ rushed for 112 yards on 26 carries last week in the win over Arizona to follow up an 83-yard performance the week prior in Denver.

But here’s the thing: We’ll be watching to see what his usage looks like, rather than his actual performance. Reynolds was the primary ballcarrier in each of the last two weeks and excelled mightily. But Jamaal Williams is poised to return from the COVID list and D’Andre Swift (shoulder) is currently questionable.

The Lions are likely to have their backup quarterback under center, which means that we’ll probably see them rely on the run even more than they had in previous weeks. But a couple questions remain: Has Reynolds done enough to earn himself a spot in the rotation when the position group is fully healthy? And what will his production look like versus Swift and Williams, with everything else being equal? 

2. Boyle’s back

Who would have thought that the absence of Jared Goff would be such a devastating blow?

Back when an oblique strain kept Goff out of the lineup against Cleveland, the prospect of seeing somebody else under center was actually intriguing. But that was the old Jared Goff — the not-yet NFC Offensive Player of the Week, soon-to-be FedEx Air Player of the Week.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Friday morning that it’s “highly unlikely” Goff is able to get off the COVID list in time to go vs. Atlanta on Sunday, and that means it’s time for Tim Boyle’s redemption tour. 

Boyle went 15-for-23 passing for 77 yards and two interceptions in a Week 11 loss at Cleveland, but it’s worth noting that it was his first game action since being sidelined for three months with thumb surgery, and the game also featured heavy rain in 44-degree temperatures. Not ideal!

Boyle shouldn’t have to deal with the conditions this week, and the neutral conditions inside Atlanta’s dome should help him find a rhythm under center.

3. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object

We detailed the Arizona Cardinals’ road success (7-0, all wins by double digits, etc.) last week, so naturally, they lost their first game away from home to one of the league’s worst teams — by a margin of 18.

When the Lions and Falcons face off this week, both will be looking to snap different kinds of streaks. The Falcons have yet to win a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season — their lone ‘home’ win came in London against the Jets — and the Lions haven’t won away from Ford Field. 

Which streak will come to a triumphant end in Atlanta this weekend? Lions fans should be encouraged by their team’s chances, even with Goff looking unable to go. 

Detroit has won two of its last three games, and if you’re kind enough to forget the 28-point clobbering by Denver when half of its teams roster was out, has played well on the road this season.

The Lions lost to the Browns by 3, tied Pittsburgh, came within a few plays of scaring the Rams, and lost to the Vikings on a last-second field goal in their previous four games away from home.

Atlanta, meanwhile, comes into this game after having its playoff chances all but decimated in a convincing loss at San Francisco, and has lost its five games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this year by a combined 74 points.

4. Merry St. Brown

Amon-Ra St. Brown has had one heck of a December.

The rookie receiver caught 10 passes — including the game-winner with no time left for his first-career touchdown — in the win over Minnesota and caught eight passes against both Denver and Arizona, adding a touchdown against the Cardinals. 

Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown pulls down a touchdown reception along the sidelines.

And that has given the fourth-rounder out of USC a seat at the big boys club. St. Brown is second amongst rookie receivers in receptions (65) — a Lions franchise record — second in games with seven or more receptions (four), fourth in targets (87) and fourth in yards after catch (292). 

The bad news for St. Brown is that the quarterback he’s built chemistry with is out. The good news for him is that Atlanta’s passing defense ranks 24th in the NFL (just a tick above Detroit), and the absence of most playmakers in Detroit’s offense means he’ll likely be a focal point of Detroit’s passing attack no matter how tame it ends up.

5. Surprises and stalwarts

Points look like they’ll be coming at a premium for the Lions’ offense this week, and that means Detroit’s defense will need to have a strong follow-up to last week’s shutdown of the Cardinals.

Amani Oruwariye — whose interception of Kyler Murray last week gave him the third-most interceptions in the NFL this season (six) — is out with ligament and bone damage to his thumb. That’s obviously cause for concern, but with this game not meaning much in the big picture, it really just presents yet another opportunity for an up-and-coming defensive back to step up.

Injuries have caused the Lions to unearth some hidden gems at corner (and really, all over the field) throughout the season, and this week could be no different.

In the middle of the defense, Alex Anzalone’s season-ending shoulder injury opens the door for linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Derrick Barnes. Barnes, a rookie out of Purdue, tied a season-high with 47 snaps last week and could ideally continue building on his comfort level heading into next season.

Meanwhile, up front, Charles Harris’ engine is humming like a Plymouth Barracuda. He added to his career-high sack total (7.5) in the win over Arizona, coming down with 1.5 plus 12 total tackles. He’s been a revelation on the edge for Detroit this season, and with so many other question marks on the defensive side of the ball, is a player you can count on this Sunday.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.