GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s going to be a tight race over the final four games of the season between the Packers and Chicago Bears — both with an 8-4 record — to see which team enters the playoffs as the NFC North champion. If the Packers win out, it will be them, with the first of those four challenges happening Sunday night at Lambeau Field in potentially snowy conditions against the Detroit Lions.
Here are five things to watch for in the Packers-Lions game:
1. Capitalizing against a team with nothing to lose
The Lions are 4-8, on a four-game losing streak and have had their high expectations for this season shattered. As far as their postseason hopes are concerned, they have nothing to play for. Nothing that Detroit can do in its final four regular-season games can get them into the playoffs.
But does that make them more dangerous?
When these two teams met three weeks ago in Detroit, if the Lions had won, they would have had a 5-5 record. Instead, their midseason collapse was just beginning. It would seem like a great opportunity for a small dose of revenge for coach Jim Schwartz’s group to storm into Lambeau Field, take control of the game early and get some payback on their NFC North rival.
Having nothing to lose can be very advantageous for a team because all the pressure is off. For the Lions on Sunday night, beating the Packers is their playoff game. And if Detroit can make that happen, it will be the Lions’ first victory in Green Bay since 1991 … the year before 42-year-old kicker Jason Hanson was drafted by Detroit.
2. Shutting down Matthew Stafford again
In the matchup three weeks ago, the Packers dominated Stafford. He completed only 17 of his 39 passes, was sacked five times and threw two interceptions, giving Stafford a season-worst 54.0 passer rating — a rating that even Jets QB Mark Sanchez would be disappointed by. Stafford had success finding star receiver Calvin Johnson for 143 receiving yards and the only passing touchdown for the Lions in the game, but that was it. No other receiver had more than 35 yards.
The five Packers sacks in the last meeting were also while playing without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, both of whom will be out again Sunday night. But if Erik Walden — who had two sacks in the first game — and Dezman Moses — one sack in that game — can get pressure on Stafford again this time around, Green Bay should come out with another win.
3. If Greg Jennings is ready for a breakout game
Just as Jennings returned from his groin and abdominal injuries last weekend, fellow wide receiver Jordy Nelson aggravated a hamstring injury and is out for this game. Though quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t be able to work with both of his star wideouts, this is a good test to see where Jennings is at. He’s just over a month removed from abdominal surgery but claims to be fully recovered. However, being fully recovered and being the elite-level Jennings of the past four seasons are quite different.
Jennings played 56 snaps last weekend against Minnesota, twice as many as coach Mike McCarthy had intended — Nelson’s first-quarter injury forced a change of plans. Jennings caught four passes for 46 yards, but Rodgers targeted him a team-high eight times.
There is no question that Rodgers would like to get Jennings playing like the Pro-Bowl receiver that he had been the past two years. That should mean plenty of chances for Jennings to prove he can get open and show Green Bay’s next few opponents how close he really is to being a game-changing playmaker again.
4. Alex Green’s performance in the spotlight, with Ryan Grant waiting in the wings
Well, it’s Green’s turn once again to start at running back. After Cedric Benson injured his foot in Week 5, McCarthy’s plan was for Green to take over the starting role permanently. However, after 20-plus carries in three consecutive games produced below-average results from Green, McCarthy went to James Starks. But, as has happened frequently in Starks’ career, he got hurt and will be sidelined for “multiple weeks,” according to McCarthy.
The Packers invested a third-round pick in Green in 2011 and are hoping he can embrace his latest opportunity. In order to do so, Green will have to give the offense more than the 3.3-yard average that he has throughout his first 109 rushing attempts this season.
If Green struggles, McCarthy will find out just how ready newly re-signed Ryan Grant is. McCarthy stated this week that he doesn’t expect Grant to play a lot of snaps yet, but circumstances could change during the game. Grant has carried the ball just once this season — when he was with the Washington Redskins — and hasn’t been back at Lambeau Field since the Packers’ playoff loss in January.
For Green Bay’s offense to succeed, it needs the running game to be effective. Against Detroit’s 19th-ranked rushing defense, the Packers will find out whether Green can get the job done.
5. Consistent protection for Rodgers
No quarterback in the NFL has been sacked more than Rodgers this season. In the four games in which he’s been sacked five or more times, the Packers are 1-3. In the five games in which Rodgers has been sacked twice or fewer, Green Bay is 5-0. Simply put, when Rodgers has time to throw, the Packers offense can win them games. When Rodgers is in a hurry in the pocket, Green Bay’s offense struggles. And, for a team built around its passing offense, it needs Rodgers to perform well in order to win most games.
Detroit is ranked 16th in the NFL in sacks, and it took down Rodgers three times in the last meeting. Cliff Avril is the Lions’ biggest pass-rushing threat with 8.5 sacks, with Ndamukong Suh (5.5 sacks), Nick Fairley (4.5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (3.5 sacks) also contributing nicely.
The Packers are already without starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who is on injured reserve with a hip injury. Now, T.J. Lang is questionable to play due to an ankle injury, leaving Green Bay with undrafted rookie Don Barclay at right tackle.
An already weak part of the Packers’ roster will be challenged by the Lions, but if the offensive line can give Rodgers time, this season has proven that it results in victories for Green Bay.