For the umpteenth time in team history, the Green Bay Packers are about to play for the NFC North title in the last week of the regular season, and I know for sure that it is the fourth time in a row.
Three years ago, they played the Bears for the title when Aaron Rodgers was injury-plagued; two years ago in a game I attended, they played the Lions at home with the famous “Suh stomp”; and last year was a home game against the Vikings.
The Packers are 2-1 in those games, and now have a road matchup against a Detroit Lions team who just got walloped by the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington. This game got moved to Sunday Night Football, which means it is the best game of the week.
I don’t know about you, but if Green Bay beat the Lions in Detroit on New Year’s Day, I don’t want anything to do with Detroit in the playoffs.
There is a saying, based off of complete truth, that it is incredibly hard to beat an NFL team three times in a season. In fact, it has never been done before, and I hate to say it, but the first 10 weeks of the season for the Packers showed that it probably won’t be different. The safest way to avoid the Lions until the NFC title game (at least) would be for the Packers to win and for the Seattle Seahawks to beat the San Francisco 49ers. That way, the Packers will get the four seed regardless of what Atlanta does, and will host the Giants in Lambeau.
Should Green Bay lose, I’m not sure about the Detroit-Atlanta tiebreakers, but I would assume that (with a Seattle win too) the Packers would head to Atlanta.
This is one of those games where the numbers don’t really matter, although as of late the Packers have a five-game winning streak where the Lions have lost two in a row. Those numbers are probably the most important, but also the number of injuries per team: cornerback Darius Slay, running back Theo Riddick and center Travis Swanson are all questionable heading into this week’s game, and it seems like the order of most likely to not play goes Slay, Swanson, Riddick, respectively. Darius Slay is probably the most important, as the Packers’ trio of wide receivers would have no trouble against Nevin Lawson and Johnson Bademosi.
For the Packers’ injuries, the newest injury is to cornerback LaDarius Gunter, who is questionable with an elbow injury. Center J.C. Tretter should finally be active, but I’m not sure if he will start. In my opinion, he only starts if tackle Bryan Bulaga can’t go with the shoulder injury. Running back James Starks still is in concussion protocol, but with Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael, his services aren’t necessarily needed. Finally, receiver Randall Cobb was a surprise scratch, and I would expect him to play in Detroit.
When the Packers have the ball, it will be important for the receivers to attack the secondary of the Lions. Even with Darius Slay in there, he will be banged up, and that will create an opportunity for the running game. The Packers have five players with over 300 yards receiving, and three with 600 yards or more, and Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in touchdowns, so it’s obvious what the strength is. In this case, the Lions’ front seven is stout, and the Packers should attack the back end to open up the running game. Defensive lineman Kerry Hyder is the team’s leader in sacks with 8.0, so he is the guy you have to stop, where defensive end Ziggy Ansah is almost used as a decoy. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy has finally returned to health, and free safety Glover Quin is one of the best safeties in the NFL.
When the Lions have the ball, stopping the passing game is the priority. Quarterback Matthew Stafford’s throwing hand is fine, but the Packers’ corners will need to play a good game to stop the balanced passing attack of the Lions. The big five of Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, Eric Ebron and Riddick all have caught at least 50 passes, so the pressure will be on the secondary and pass rush. Having a healthy Clay Matthews and Nick Perry rushing the passer will help, and the lack of a running game will allow the Packers to play more coverage. Like the Packers, no Lion has over 500 rushing yards this season.
I like the Packers’ matchup against the Lions, and I think they can run the table, but it will be a lot tougher than usual. My game plan sounds easy, but the Lions have led the division for a long time and have done so for a good reason. They have been brought back down to earth by New York and Dallas, but don’t assume that they are going to roll over. I’m going with Green Bay here, but it will be a lot closer than people believe.
Final score: Green Bay 31, Detroit 28
Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images