On Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers will face the Detroit Lions for the 2016 NFC North title at Ford Field.
The Packers could clinch at least a wildcard berth earlier in the day if the New York Giants defeat the Washington Redskins, but winning the division would guarantee at least one home playoff game.
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Here’s three things that could determine the outcome of the game.
1. Pressuring Stafford
Last week, the Packers sacked Sam Bradford four times and pressured him on 17 dropbacks overall (according to Pro Football Focus), including a game-changing strip sack by Clay Matthews at the end of the first half. It will be crucial to carry that performance over to Detroit.
Matthews had been a shell of his former self for much of this season, battling a shoulder injury in recent weeks. But he brought consistent pressure with speed, flexibility, and spin moves off the edge last week. Nick Perry has figured out how to harass quarterbacks even while playing with a bulky club on his broken left hand, as he collected two sacks of his own last week.
Nov 20, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) stands on the field during pre game warm ups prior to the Packers
The availability of both Matthews and Perry also assures that Julius Peppers won’t need to take on a heavy workload, which should allow him to have a bigger impact in obvious passing situations.
Detroit’s left tackle Taylor Decker is one of the best rookies in the entire league, but right tackle Riley Reiff is only mediocre in pass protection, with a 68.7 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus.
Besides the three premier edge rushers, other factors include the exceptional Mike Daniels and rookie Kenny Clark, who’s made little impact overall but has shown occasional flashes as a pass rusher.
Pressure creates turnovers, and turnovers win games. A timely play from the pass rush, like Matthews’ strip sack last week, could completely turn the game’s tide.
2. Safety Play
Why is the pass rush so important? Because if it doesn’t get home, things could get ugly in a hurry.
Matt Stafford and the Lions offense has weathered the departure of Calvin Johnson in fine fashion. They barely even bother running the ball, ranking 30th in the league in yards and 31st in attempts. But they’re slightly above average with the 14th-ranked passing offense in the league at 252 yards per game.
The Packers biggest weakness is at cornerback, as they haven’t recovered from Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion. Damarious Randall has excellent ball skills when the pass is in the air, but he’s wildly inconsistent in coverage. Ladarius Gunter has been the Packers’ best overall corner, but his limited speed leaves him vulnerable on deep routes. Quentin Rollins has not made the second-year leap the Packers hoped.
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While it’s important to pressure Stafford as much as possible, there will inevitably be plays where he has time to attack down the field. On those plays, Morgan Burnett and especially Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will need to prevent the Lions receivers from getting behind them.
Clinton-Dix has collected five interceptions so far in his third season, which has been his best as a pro. But he appeared to get greedy last week in search of his sixth when he collided with Rollins on a 71-yard touchdown reception by Adam Thielen.
The Lions have the receivers to burn the Packers, with Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin as the leading possession receivers and Marvin Jones as the explosive deep threat. Jones had 205 yards and two touchdowns in Detroit’s Week 3 loss to Green Bay.
In addition to the receivers, the safeties as well as Micah Hyde will be tasked with covering dangerous tight end Eric Ebron.
Both Clinton-Dix and Burnett will need to be disciplined to contain Stafford and cover for the inevitable mistakes the corners will make.
3. Light up the Scoreboard
My first two keys to the game are about containing the Lions potent offense. But it would be a surprise if the Packers managed to hold Detroit under 28 points, and they could potentially give up a lot more.
To win this game, then, the Packers offense likely needs to light up the scoreboard.
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They will have plenty of opportunities to do just that. The Lions might have top cornerback Darius Slay back from injury, but other than him, they are suspect in the secondary. Nevin Lawson and Johnson Bademosi are the next two corners. Aaron Rodgers will love the matchups that Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams have against these players, Bademosi especially.
In a dome game that will probably turn into a shootout, the Packers aren’t likely to run the ball much at all. The offense, as has been the case essentially all year, will be in the hands of Rodgers and his receivers.
The Packers may need to put up more than 35 points to win. The offensive line should have little trouble providing Rodgers with plenty of time in the pocket, but the receivers need to win against coverage and stop dropping passes. Adams has dropped three touchdowns in the past two weeks.
It’s hard to see how this game can be anything other than a shootout. With the division on the line, I’m not betting against Aaron Rodgers and this Packers offense. I think that the offense will have little trouble moving the ball and the defense will come up with one or two key sacks or turnovers to win the NFC North.