Free Press writer Dave Birkett talks with Detroit Lions’ Devon Kennard about his season, the team’s defense and some of the league’s other players.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

ATLANTA – The Los Angeles Rams were a buzz saw ripping their way through the NFL when they traveled to Ford Field in early December.

A 10-1 team at the time, the Rams averaged more than 35 points per game through the season’s first three months and yet found themselves in the middle of tug-of-a-war with a Detroit Lions teamplaying out the string on a 6-10 season.

The Lions trailed just 16-13 midway through the fourth quarter when a Matthew Stafford fumble set up an easy Todd Gurley touchdown that opened the floodgates for a 14-point Rams win.

But even though they lost, the Lions — perhaps — gave the NFL a blueprint to follow to keep L.A.’s high-powered offense in check.

The Rams lost their next two games, scoring 29 points combined against the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, then beat up on two NFC West foes to cruise into the playoffs.

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They haven’t scored more than 30 points yet this postseason, and on Sunday they face a New England Patriots team in Super Bowl LIII that Lions linebacker Devon Kennard said would be wise to pay attention to tape of that Lions-Rams game.

“I think we’re the ones that showed a chink in their armor,” Kennard said Friday from radio row. “Cause we weren’t supposed to be a very good team at that time and we played them, and we played them really well. If a couple things happen differently, I think that game could have been ours. And I’m talking mostly defensively, so I think it’s about kind of knowing their scheme, knowing what they do, controlling them.”

The Lions and Patriots have similar defensive schemes, and Kennard said it makes sense for the Patriots to take a similar approach to stopping the Rams offense.

Gurley finished with 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns — he broke a big 36-yard gain late in the fourth quarter — but quarterback Jared Goff (17-of-33 for 207 yards) had one of his worst outings of the season as the Lions shut down L.A.’s play-action passing game.

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Kennard, who left the Rams game with an injury, said he doesn’t remember specifics of the Lions gameplan that day, but that the Lions did a good job of getting Goff off his spot in the pocket and containing Gurley on stretch running plays.

Just as the Lions’ loss to the Rams could serve as a model for the Patriots, the Lions were one of just five teams to beat New England this year, and they did so in dominating fashion, 26-10, in Week 3.  The Lions had 159 yards rushing that day and nearly doubled New England in time of possession.

“I think when you play teams like this, you got to physically get after this and usually in football that means trying to run the ball,” Lions tight end Luke Willson said. “I think that the run game’s probably going to be much more important than what people are probably going to lead up to going into this thing.”

Willson said the key matchup in his eyes Sunday is Patriots running back Sony Michel against the Rams’ interior defensive line of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Michel had 931 yards rushing on the season, but the Lions held him to just 50 yards on 14 carries.

“Sony Michel’s had some really big games and if Tom (Brady) has a 100-yard rusher he’s going to be able to light everything up,” Willson said. 

Kennard said the Lions played a mostly mistake-free game against the Patriots, and said that’s what it will take for the Rams to win Sunday.

“You can’t make a lot of mistakes against them, that’s the key,” he said. “Cause they’re not going to make a lot of mistakes. They play sound football and they make the plays they’re supposed to make, so if you start making mistakes that’s how the game just slowly goes in their favor.”

As for a prediction, Kennard said he’s picking the Patriots to win a close one, while Willson said it all comes down to the running games.

“The thing with the Patriots is they trend toward the end of the year, and they’re probably playing their best ball right now,” Kennard said. “It always happens with them. I don’t know what it is about (Bill) Belichick that he finds a way. So my money’s on them, but I actually think the Rams have more talent so it’s one of those games that could go either way. We’ll see.”

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