The Green Bay Packers will take to Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon for what they and their fans hope is not the last time this season. The Packers will host the Lions in a battle to determine the winner of the NFC North and the winner will likely emerge with one of the two top seeds in the conference, thereby guaranteeing a bye week and at least one home playoff game. The way the Packers have played at Lambeau this season, that would create a lot of optimism for the what Green Bay can make of the 2014 season.
A quick recap of the scenario in the NFC playoff picture: the Packers, first and foremost, need a win in this game. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot but they’re currently only the fifth seed with the Lions at number two by virtue of the Lions winning this match up earlier this season. With the Seattle Seahawks (currently the conference’s top seed) hosting the St. Louis Rams this week, the likelihood of an upset by the Rams is very low. If Seattle wins, they are the top seed and will have home-field advantage throughout. In that scenario, a Packers win would secure them the second seed and drop Detroit to sixth. If the Lions win, they’re the second seed and the Packers are the sixth. The Dallas Cowboys should beat the Washington Redskins and secure the number three seed and even if they don’t win, Dallas is still the third seed because the NFC South winner will be entering the fray from the slums of the NFL. The 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers and 6-9 Atlanta Falcons will duke it out for that division and the fourth seed. One of the two will be hosting a playoff game against a team with at least 11 wins. The Arizona Cardinals are currently the sixth seed and they face the San Francisco 49ers on the road with Ryan Lindley to start at quarterback again. Earlier this week, as in on Monday, Cards head coach Bruce Arians said the team would go with rookie quarterback Logan Thomas after Lindley had his struggles in a loss to Seattle, Arizona’s only home loss this season. After a “bad week of practice” by Thomas, Arians decided to re-insert Lindley back in as the starter. If by “bad week of practice”, Arians really means, “I was stupid and never should have said anything about a quarterback change so early in the week” then yes, it was a. . “bad week of practice” by Thomas that brought about the change. While many will talk about whether the NFC South winner deserves to be in the tournament with just seven wins, it’s likely to be the Cardinals who will get soundly knocked out right away due to a deficiency at the quarterback position. It’s tough to win games in the NFL without a good quarterback. It’s tougher to win playoff games unless the team has an all-time great defense. The Cardinals are pretty good on defense, but not good enough.
In the “we can dream” category, if the Rams pull an upset over Seattle and the Packers beat Detroit, Green Bay is the one seed. In that case, if Arizona can somehow beat the 9ers, the Cardinals are the second seed and Seattle would drop to fifth, making it very unlikely that anyone would have to travel to Seattle. It all hinges on St. Louis getting the win over Seattle, but those hinges are very squeaky.
Back to the Packers, they’re 7-0 at home so far and are averaging over 40 points per game there. They have also historically played well in December over the past few decades. They’ve also won 10 of their last 11 season finales, with the latest loss coming to the Minnesota Vikings in 2012. The Packers went on to beat the Vikings in the wild card round the following week. Head coach Mike McCarthy has done a good job of keeping his teams focused and ready to finish their season strong and head into postseason play on a high note. McCarthy will also have the burden of making sure his team doesn’t get snake bitten in their first playoff game a la 2011. Many wondered if the bye week and resting key starters in week 17 led to a rusty and poor performance in Green Bay against the New York Giants two weeks later. In looking at this year’s team, that similar scenario doesn’t seem as concerning. This team is a bit wiser but most importantly, they have more overall talent, especially on defense.
Defense is going to be the name of the game on Sunday. Detroit’s unit ranks first overall in total yards allowed, as well as rushing with a paltry 65 yards per game allowed. The Packers have been averaging closer to 110 yards per game on offense so something has to give. The Packers have benefited from two strong defensive performances in a row and now sit in the middle of the pack in terms of overall defense. Green Bay’s pass defense is the biggest source of pride as the secondary has played well all season long. Safety Morgan Burnett has elevated his game and has been the team’s leading tackler over the past few weeks. His performance in run support has not gone unnoticed and he’s helping set a nice edge at the line of scrimmage, making short yardage situations much tougher on opposing offenses.
The Lions will be without defensive lineman Nick Fairley, who has been ruled out with a knee injury. The Lions’ ability to generate pressure without blitzing is a key area of focus for them this week. Anyone with a television and the ESPN channel knows you can’t blitz Rodgers and succeed all day. He’s going to find a way to extend the play and find an open man. C.J. Mosley becomes a big factor in the middle, aiding stud tackle Ndamukong Suh in getting to Rodgers often. The ends Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah are both having solid seasons as well. The Packers offensive line has had one of its finest seasons in over a decade and need to turn in another grade-A performance this week. Guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton have battled leg and toe issues all season, respectively, but should be as close to fully healthy as can be expected this time of year. Rookie center Corey Linsley faced Suh in just his third start back in week three and wasn’t horrible. What’s more is that he has not only faced Suh before, but has tape to study and nearly a full season’s worth of experience to rely on in his preparation. Trust that Suh will be doing the same with Linsley. Tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari have both had their struggles this season and if there is one area that I can foresee breaking down, it’s here. Detroit will likely test the outside protection early on to see where they can make hay. With a quarterback like Rodgers, the best bet is to do your best to disguise the defense and bring pressure where it’s not expected.
Against this active Lions defensive front, the Packers have an opportunity to get the short, quick passing game going again. Detroit’s secondary is better and more disciplined than we’re used to seeing and the pass catchers have to hang onto the ball. The Lions linebackers cover well so there won’t be a ton of separation in the short to mid range this week. This is where having a pinpoint-accurate quarterback like Rodgers gives the Packers a chance to succeed even if Detroit comes with their best effort. The big factor offensively for the Packers, in the rhythm and no-huddle offense that they like to run, is that everyone is on the same page. How many times have we heard Rodgers joke about tight end Andrew Quarless running the wrong route this season? Rodgers may be able to make up for some of those little mistakes, but in a game of this magnitude and against an above average pass defense, those can easily lead to turnovers. Rookie receiver Davante Adams had a miserable day in Buffalo and was clearly not thinking along the same lines as Rodgers. The stakes are only getting higher and Adams can’t be engulfed by the magnitude of the situation.
On defense, the Packers need a strong plan to both create pressure and cover receivers. The Packers typically get their sacks by bringing a fifth guy. What that does is likely leave Lions receivers Calvin Johnson or Golden Tate some extra room within zone coverage or one-on-one off the line before help comes over the top. If the Lions are content to take the short to mid-range passes on Sunday, it will be up to the Packers defense to make plays on the ball and get off the field. Otherwise, it’s a long and tiring day early on for them.
In terms of any other specifics, we have discussed many of those on the site this week as have so many others. It seems we can’t go 10 minutes without ESPN talking about this match up and what both teams need to do to get a win. One area the Packers need to be especially wary of is special teams. It’s no secret the Packers have struggled to protect their kickers this season and that they tend to have breakdowns in kick coverage. Ironically, the Lions started out the season with the worst kicking situation of all and finally stabilized it with the signing of place kicker Matt Prater. Prater has been a steadying force and can hit from long range as well. Last week, we saw both Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde on punt return. Why Cobb was back there, I have no idea but against a physical and dirty-minded squad like the Lions, let’s hope it’s all Hyde, all day. As far as the kicking game, expect to see some of the starters up front to gain back some leverage and give Mason Crosby a chance to build on what has been a fantastic season. Field position is so key in any game and with the Lions offense struggling to score points lately, the Packers need not do Detroit any favors by giving them a shorter field.
There seems to be a lot of bravado among Packers fans about this game. The strong showing at home this season along with the MVP-like play of Rodgers has many wondering how the Packers can possibly lose this game. I picked the Packers to win, as did everyone else on the site, but if there’s a Lions team equipped to end the 23-year losing streak in Wisconsin, it’s this year’s. Of course, they will be without their longest-standing veteran in that of center Dominic Raiola. He’s serving a one-game suspension for intentionally stepping on the foot of a Chicago Bears player last week. Raiola may as well have tripped over his own foot (or something else). Just when we thought the Lions were turning into a more disciplined team that was past some of the antics that have befuddled seasons past, we see that once again, Lions gon’ Lion. How fitting would it be to see a fumbled snap exchange late in the fourth quarter with the Packers falling on it to seal the win?
Most of my feature images for this piece have been an opposing player that I see as likely to be a key for the Packers. With this being the last, and most important game of the season, I had to go with Green Bay’s MVP, Rodgers. He should still garner a lot of consideration for the league honor, but there’s one last battle to fight. In all of the regular season games Rodgers has been present for and played in at Lambeau Field, this is his most important. The best of the best rise above the circumstances and make things happen. The sore calf muscle, a lingering flu bug and a season’s worth of bumps and bruises need to take a back seat this Sunday. After the first Lions game, Rodgers told us to R-E-L-A-X. Here’s to hoping we’re all doing exactly that most of the afternoon as we watch another astounding example of why these Packers always have a chance to do something special.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: