Lions at Eagles: Five things to watch

After all these years, the Detroit Lions have finally found a run game but they’re still turning the ball over too much.

The Philadelphia Eagles finally figured out how to win at home but after such a slow start, they don’t have much room for error.

Both teams are in contention for division titles entering Sunday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Here are five storylines to follow:
 
1. LIONS CAN RUN
It might not sound like much to some, but for the Lions’ offense to rank 15th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (115.2) is quite an accomplishment.

This is the Lions’ best run game in 15 years since they averaged 122.2 yards a game and were the 10th-best in the league in 1998.

It’s no coincidence that was Barry Sanders’ final year.

Since Sanders retired, the Lions have ranked 28th, 20th, 28th, 29th, 32nd, 19th, 26th, 32nd, 31st, 30th, 24th, 23rd, 29th and 23rd in rushing offense.

But things have changed with the addition of Reggie Bush and the emergence of Joique Bell to give them a legitimate one-two-punch of explosiveness and power.

Bush (6-foot, 203 pounds) ranks seventh in the NFL with 854 yards rushing and needs 146 to become the Lions’ first 1,000-yard rusher in nine years, since Kevin Jones ran for 1,133 in 2004.

Bell (5-11, 220), who came out of Wayne State University in Detroit as an undrafted free agent in 2010, has added 435 yards rushing, which ranks 36th in the league.

Both are also integral parts of the pass game, combining for 79 receptions and 826 more yards.

“Both of those guys complement each other well,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “We have good plans for them. Both have made a lot of plays.”
 
2. EAGLES RUN GAME VS. LIONS RUN D
Much has made about Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles’ streak of 196 passes this season without throwing an interception, but in reality, the run game is what has powered the Eagles’ no-huddle, fast-paced offense under coach Chip Kelly.

It will make for an intriguing matchup against the Lions’ run defense, which has been stifling opponents since giving up some big plays early in the season.

Philadelphia ranks No. 2 in rushing offense with a 146.8-yard average per game. LeSean McCoy has run for 1,088 yards, the second-most in the league behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (1,208).

Detroit, on the other hand, has the third-ranked rush defense, allowing only 82.7 yards a game. Part of that success is because opposing offenses prefer to pass to exploit the Lions’ secondary, but the run defense has been very good.

Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy rank 15th and 20th in the league in tackles with 97 and 94 respectively.

No team has rushed for more than 62 yards for the last six games against the Lions, who also haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown since September 29.

“That run game is really what keeps them going,” Schwartz said of the Eagles. “They stretch the whole field horizontally. He (McCoy) can run inside and he can run outside.

“With us, it’s always been about eliminating the long run. I think we’re a good tackling team. We have experienced linebackers that know which gaps to hit. Our safeties have been good tacklers and when they do, we don’t give up big runs.”
 
3. INTERCEPTION-LESS FOLES
Foles, a third-round draft pick in 2012, can break the NFL record for most touchdown passes without an interception to start a season by passing for two more TDs before throwing a pick.

Lions rookie cornerback Darius Slay credits Foles for not forcing any passes, but he expects the interception-less streak to end.

“I feel like he’s going to get one this week,” Slay said.

Denver’s Peyton Manning started this season with 20 TD passes before getting intercepted.

Foles enters this one with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.

For only his second year in pro football, he has been very impressive picking up blitzes since replacing Michael Vick and starting six of the last seven games.

Foles, leading the league with a 125.2 passer rating, began his college career at Michigan State before transferring after one year to Arizona.

Asked if it’s realistic for him to finish the season without an interception, Foles said, “Realistic? No. That’s crazy.

“But I am going to keep playing as I am and if something happens, it’s not going to destroy me. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You have to be aggressive and be smart.”
 
4. WASHBURN RETURNS TO PHILLY
Detroit Lions defensive line coach Jim Washburn, 64, was fired one year ago this week as the Eagles’ D-line coach.

Now Washburn goes back to Philly with a chance to get a little revenge.

Some believe that Washburn was made a scapegoat for the Eagles’ poor season, but Bob Grotz, an Eagles beat writer for delcotimes.com, described the fallout this way:

“Salty, loud-mouthed and borderline disrespectful, he helped turn a difficult 2012 Eagles season into a living nightmare.”

Washburn, who had a shoving incident on the sideline with Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg during a game two years ago, declined to be interviewed this week.

One of his former players, Brandon Graham, expects it to be an emotional day for Washburn.

“This is a big game for him,” Graham told Grotz. “He probably marked that down on his calendar when he first found out.”

Graham, a Detroit native and former Michigan player, moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Eagles’ new 3-4 defensive scheme this year.

“I definitely can say that we miss him as a friend,” Graham said of Washburn.
 
5. FIRST PLACE TEAMS
The Lions and Eagles are both in first place, but they’ve gotten there quite differently.

One of the biggest contrasts is in turnover margin, generally considered the most important statistic in football.

The Eagles are tied for eighth in the NFL at plus-7 (22 takeaways, 15 giveaways) while the Lions are 26th at minus-8 (17 takeaways, 25 giveaways).

Philadelphia lost its first four home games before bouncing back to beat Washington and Arizona in recent weeks. This is the Eagles’ third straight home game.

They are on a four-game winning streak overall, which has lifted them into a tie with Dallas atop the NFC East.

The Lions, meanwhile, are closing in on their first division title in two decades. They have a one-game lead  in the NFC North on Chicago, which plays Monday at home against Dallas.

Both of these division races could swing on the outcome of these two games.

INJURY REPORT
Rookie cornerback Darius Slay suffered a “freak” knee injury during practice Thursday, according to Schwartz, and is officially listed as doubtful.
 
Slay, a second-round draft pick out of Mississippi State, was coming off his best game of the season.
 
He was scheduled to undergo more tests to determine the extent of the injury and whether it could force him to miss the rest of the season.
 
Bush, who returned to practice Friday after missing two days with a calf injury, and cornerback Chris Houston, who missed the last game because of a foot injury, are both questionable.
 
The Eagles reported no significant injuries to their starting lineup.

PICK:
PHILADELPHIA – 2 1/2
(Dye’s season prediction record: 8-4)