Five things to watch as the Lions face the Bengals in must-win game

Protecting Matthew Stafford os key

If ever there was a game the LIons should win it’s this matchup on Sunday at Cincinnati.

The Bengals (5-9) have no playoff hopes, so all they’re playing for is pride.

The Lions (8-6) must win to keep their playoff hopes alive, plus they need help.

Cincinnati has been the only focus for the team this week. They seriously do not look ahead.

“We try to encourage them just to focus on what we can control, what we do. And there’s 16 games in the season, you play them out no matter how they fall. You take a look at it at the end and see where you are, and I think that’s where we are at this stage,’’ coach Jim Caldwell said.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

If they finish 10-6 and do not make it to the postseason they can only blame themselves.

Five things to watch against the Bengals:

1. Keep Matthew Stafford from being touched. Two more sacks and he’ll have 45 for the year which ties a career-high which is pathetic. Stafford was sacked zero times by the Tampa Bay Bucs two weeks ago, the only game this season he hasn’t gone down. Stafford is good at avoiding sacks, but he should not be put in so many potential sack situations.

“We have to protect the quarterback better, it starts with me. Could be play calling, could be scheme, could be game plan for the week. But at the end of the day, we do not want our quarterback hit as much as we have been so far this year and that’s a major point of emphasis for us moving forward,’’ offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “We believe in protecting our quarterback and that’s really important in offense football I believe, so we got to do a better job and I’ve got to do a better job.”

2. Pressure Andy Dalton who has had an up-and-down season. Last week in the 34-7 loss to the Vikings, he had two interceptions and zero touchdowns. In the season opener, he was worse with four interceptions and no touchdowns. In-between he’s been so-so. The defense has has issues with pressuring quarterbacks, but no excuse here. Dalton has been sacked 35 times. Of course he does have a top wide receiver in A.J. Green. “I expect he’ll give us all we can handle,’’ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Green.

3. Run the ball. Seriously.  If Lions can’t find success against the Bengals, who rank 32nd in rushing defense (allowing 131.5 yards per game), then their run game is worse than we thought. Theo Riddick should be back after he left Saturday’s game with a wrist injury. Ameer Abdullah is healthy except for his hurt feelings that his role has diminished. Tion Green appears to be a playmaker but needs to get the chance.

4. Stopping the run should not be much of a challenge for the Lions. The Bengals are the worst team in the NFL in rushing averaging just 77.0 yards per game. Top running back Joe Mixon has been in concussion protocol, but has practiced this week and is expected to play. He has 157 carries for 518 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

5. It’s so much easier to win with a good start. Look at last week when the LIons had a 13-0 lead in the first half before the Bears kicked a field goal in the waning seconds. Even against a bad team like the Bengals, a good start is essential.

PREDICTION: Lions 31, Bengals 17

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Author: Paula Pasche

Paula Pasche, a veteran sports writer, covers the Detroit Lions for her Lions Lowdown blog. She has written two books, "Game of My Life Detroit Lions" and "100 Things Lions Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" which are available at bookstores and on Amazon.com. She won first place for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists in Detroit (Class B) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was The Oakland Press 2010 Staffer of the Year.

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