If the Green Bay Packers get past the Detroit Lions this week, consider it mission accomplished.
Aaron Rodgers wanted to run the table, and completing this task Sunday would send the Packers into the playoffs as winners of the NFC North.
In order to do so, Green Bay must win in Detroit, a venue that last felt Rodgers’ presence with a stunning walk-off Hail Mary touchdown to Richard Rodgers. The hope is no last-second heaves are required this time, the Packers playing much better football than they were entering Ford Field last term.
Like two years ago, the NFC North title will be decided between these teams in Week 17. This time it’s not at Lambeau, however, and a wild-card berth might not await the loser as it did 24 months prior. The Packers won that afternoon, sending the Lions into Dallas for a wild-card defeat.
A loss for either team could be the end of the road. Washington host the New York Giants prior to kickoff at Ford Field. Should they earn a victory, it’ll be win-or-season-over for both Green Bay and Detroit.
What can we expect from the Lions, who until Monday night led the NFC North?
Dec 3, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers (56) strips the ball away from Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during the third quarter at Ford Field. Packers win 27-23. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
The X-Factor: Matthew Stafford
The MVP talk is no joke.
As Matthew Stafford goes, so do the Detroit Lions. Despite losing his favorite target Calvin Johnson to retirement, Stafford is putting together an excellent season in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense.
In some ways, the loss of Megatron has actually helped his development. No longer is Johnson isolated on one side of the field with Stafford often firing his way no matter the coverage. Instead, he’s spreading the ball around with more control at the line of scrimmage than ever before.
Cooter handed Stafford the ball, who grabbed it and ran, the Lions surprising many en route to a 9-6 record entering the season finale.
A key to Stafford’s success is his ball security. If he finishes Sunday without getting picked off, he’ll complete his first single-digit interception season. Gone are the days of Stafford’s aggressive throws getting him into trouble.
If the Lions’ signal caller gets rolling on Sunday night, the Packers could be in serious trouble. Stopping Stafford halts the Lions, a team carried into the playoff hunt by their quarterback.
This game will depend on the quarterback battle. Stafford can’t be allowed to hit his groove.
Nov 15, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) rushes with the football after catching a pass during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Detroit won 18-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
It’s no secret how the Lions will look to attack the Packers. No. 30 in rushing offense, Detroit’s route to success rarely starts on the ground.
Injuries to Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick haven’t helped matters, although the latter could return from a wrist issue in time for this game. Run blocking has been problematic up front despite overall improving play from the offensive line.
Controlling the clock is important when you play the Packers, but little evidence suggests the Lions will do this on the ground. Instead, they’ve often turned to a short passing game to get the job done.
Stafford spreads the ball around, but Golden Tate is his favorite target. Tate is electric after the catch, but we’ll come onto him in a moment.
In the red zone, Detroit throws more often than runs. The Lions have attempted 78 pass attempts to just 35 rushes within 19 yards of their opponent’s goal-line.
Watch out for Anquan Boldin—who leads the Lions in receiving touchdowns with seven—in the red zone. Stafford often turns to his reliable veteran when the field gets congested.
Player to watch: Golden Tate
Tate has emerged as Stafford’s top receiver in the second half of the season. After a slow start, the former Seahawk is averaging 92 yards over his past five games, although he’s only found the end zone once in that span, three times all season.
Tate leads Detroit in targets (125) and sits on exactly 1,000 receiving yards, the second time he’s hit this milestone in his career.
In six games versus Green Bay (with Detroit and Seattle), Tate has 27 catches for 319 yards a two touchdowns. He’s the man to stop on Sunday.
Nov 15, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass under pressure from Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Detroit won 18-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
It’s tough to gage Detroit’s defense.
On one afternoon they can walk into New Orleans and hold Drew Brees touchdown-less, something no defense had accomplished in 60 previous games in the Superdome. Then there’s the other side of the Detroit defense, surrendering 28 unanswered points in a 42-21 rout by Dallas.
A lot is on the shoulders of star cornerback Darius Slay. It’s no coincidence his absence last Monday night correlates with the Lions’ worst defensive performance of the season. They’ll need him back this week, for there will be no letup when Aaron Rodgers comes to town.
With a banged up secondary, the Lions’ pass rush must get home, a problem area all season long. Elite edge rusher Ezekiel Ansah has dealt with injuries all season, and the effects are evident. Ansah, with just two sacks in 12 games, is on track for the lowest sack total of his career.
The Lions’ entire pass rush has fallen as a result, tied for No. 29 in the league with just 25 sacks. Up against one of the league’s premier pass-protection offensive lines, Detroit will need significantly better play up front.
Player to watch: Darius Slay
If Slay suits up, he’s the man to watch. Easily Detroit’s best defensive back, Slay is capable of shadowing, and will be matched up plenty with Jordy Nelson.
Slay followed Nelson around for much of the Week 3 meeting at Lambeau. Nelson caught three of four targets in Slay’s coverage for 31 yards and a touchdown, but did little else when lined up outside.
Nelson’s more explosive plays came in the slot away from Slay’s coverage. Lined up in the slot, Jordy made three receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown.