The Detroit Lions are running out of time to turn themselves back into playoff contenders. They desperately need a victory Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field.
Here are five storylines to follow:
• If Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford wants to establish himself as an elite quarterback in this league, there’s no better stage than when he’s on the opposite sideline from the guy who sets the standard these days.
Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the Mannings (Peyton and Eli) can be the best on any given Sunday, but there’s nobody better right now, week in and week out, than Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
One stat tells it all: 25 touchdown passes, five interceptions.
“He loves the game,” Stafford said of Rodgers. “He’s fun to play against as a quarterback. It’s a challenge going up against him for sure.
“He’s got all the physical tools. The guy can move way better than, I think, people even know. He obviously has a quick release, big arm.”
Asked about Rodgers’ reputation for using any type of slight for self-motivation, Stafford said, “I wish he’d just get over it … start being complacent.” Stafford then chuckled and added, “It works for him. He’s a competitive guy.”
So is Stafford. He has the physical tools, too. This would be a good day to put them on display from start to finish.
• These are division rivals, so you don’t have to look too far for a little bad blood.
Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings, who won’t play because of an injury, riled up some of the Lions after he called them out during the offseason for their lack of discipline and maturity.
The two head coaches — Detroit’s Jim Schwartz and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy — even took a few jabs at each other over the summer through the media.
And, of course, this is the one-year anniversary of the Suh Stomp. Last Thanksgiving, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomped on Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith with his foot during a confrontation.
Packers offensive guard Josh Sitton was quoted earlier this week as saying Suh “better not stomp me.”
“That was in 2011,” Suh responded. “It’s 2012. Let’s move on.”
What really matters here is that the Lions must somehow find a way to end the Packers’ dominance in the series. Green Bay has won 12 of the last 13 meetings going back to 2005.
The Lions won’t be able to move on from that until they put an end to it.
• Detroit’s defense held together reasonably well for a while considering all of its injuries, especially in the secondary.
But after allowing 18 points in the fourth quarter last Sunday at Minnesota, just when the offense was trying to rally, you have to wonder if it has reached a vulnerable point.
It’s an obviously fragile unit that made Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder look almost like Aaron Rodgers at times. So what’s Rodgers himself going to do to this defense?
The Lions’ last four opponents rank in the bottom four in pass offense in the NFL. It’s going to heat up significantly over the next few weeks with high-profile opposing quarterbacks such as Rodgers (No. 2 in passing efficiency), Houston’s Matt Schaub (No. 10) and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (No. 4).
Lions cornerback Chris Houston, reflecting on the Minnesota loss, said, “I know we can’t have that type of play against Aaron Rodgers.”
The defense collapsed down the stretch last year, allowing an average of 31.7 points in the final nine games.
The way things are starting to look now, a similar collapse has to be a very real concern with seven games to play.
• Green Bay’s T.J. Lang, a Michigan native, is moving from left guard to right tackle to replace injured Bryan Bulaga.
Lang went to Birmingham (Mich.) Brother Rice High before playing at Eastern Michigan from 2005-09. EMU was 12-35 during Lang’s career.
He went on to become a fourth-round draft pick and has turned himself into quite the Twitter star (@TJLang70).
His tweet from earlier this season — “(Bleep) it NFL. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.” — remains one of the most re-tweeted posts in Twitter history.
Lang is a character, no doubt about it, but he has earned the respect of his teammates.
“He’s been a rock for us,” Rodgers said. “Really happy for him and his progression and the way he conducts himself, the leadership that he exudes to the guys on our team, the way he encourages guys, gets on them. He’s really become a leader on our offense, a guy you can really count on.”
Lang’s tweets have included sending congratulations to Tigers Triple Crown/MVP winner Miguel Cabrera. Lang also showed frustration over the NHL lockout, tweeting, “I need Red Wings hockey!”
He’s a Detroit fan at heart, but on Sunday, he’ll be the enemy.
• Slow, slower and slowest starts — week after week after week — are about to destroy the Lions’ season. They’ve trailed at halftime in eight of nine games.
It’s not just the first half, though. It’s the third quarter, too.
Detroit ranks No. 25 in first-quarter scoring (3.1 points), No. 23 in second-quarter scoring (5.2) and No. 31 in third-quarter scoring (2.2).
In reality, it takes them until the final quarter to wake up. The Lions lead the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 13.1 points — more than they score the first three quarters combined.
Stafford has a total of three touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the first three quarters of games, eight touchdowns and one interception in the fourth quarter.
What’s the problem?
“I wish I could tell you,” he said.
They better figure this thing out before Sunday because Rodgers has the ability to strike early and often. He’s completing 71 percent of his passes in the first half with 14 touchdowns and just one interception.
Defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) and safety Amari Spievey (concussion) have been ruled outof Sunday’s game for the Lions. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) is doubtful.
Receiver Calvin Johnson (knee) and cornerback Chris Houston(ankle) are listed as questionable, but both are expected to play.
The Lions are alsoexpected to activate cornerback Drayton Florence (broken forearm) from theinjured list.
For Green Bay, linebacker Clay Matthews(hamstring), receiver Greg Jennings (groin/abdomen) and cornerback Charles Woodson (collarbone) are all out.
Defensive end Jerel Worthy (concussion), a rookie from Michigan State, and receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring/foot) are both probable.