We’re almost three quarters of the way through the 2014 NFL season and Thanksgiving is already here. That means another Detroit Lions home game and hopefully a black Friday to follow for them as they get set to take on the Chicago Bears. I always like the addition of a Green Bay Packers game on Thanksgiving but after last season, I’m glad they’ll be with their families and teammates instead of on the field.
The Lions lost their second straight game and are now behind the Packers for the lead in the NFC North. To be fair, Detroit came up against two of the NFL’s best this season in the Arizona Cardinals (still sounds weird to be saying that) and the New England Patriots. While they were not to be easy games from the outset, they were tests for the Lions and their league-leading defense and they came away with two L’s.
The Bears handled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former Bears head coach Lovie Smith at Soldier Field and got another win for the home crowd. Perhaps they can salvage a bit of what seemed to be a lost season just two weeks ago? There’s still more questions than answers about the Bears, but winning cures a lot of ails and Chicago has now won two in a row.
The Packers gutted out a tough win in Minnesota over the Vikings and while both sides of the performance are being debated heavily so far this week, a win is a win. A low-scoring, hard fought win, that is. With the offensive explosion that had been coming out of Green Bay of late, many felt the only way the Packers could keep winning was to bombard the scoreboard early and often. It was the 4-7 Vikings, but they’re still a divisional opponent and it was a on the road. Minnesota learned last week that they will be without running back Adrian Peterson for the remainder of the season and with this latest loss, their attention turns from a possible late surge and playoff run to assessing what next year and beyond looks like. That assessment starts with a game against the visiting Carolina Panthers, who are in a similar situation.
The Packers will host the Patriots in what has become one of the marquee match ups of the season. Rodgers vs. Brady. Belichick vs. McCarthy. The winner firmly ingrains themselves as one of the few elite teams in the league while the loser scrambles to regain any lost ground and confidence.
Let’s look at these three games a bit closer.
Chicago Bears (5-6) at Detroit Lions (7-4)
The Lions’ record could very easily be flipped. Three times, leading up to their last two losses, Detroit was behind with less than five minutes to play and easily could have lost those games. Now, the Lions have to somehow remember how they were winning and get back on track before the North slips through their hands for a second-straight season.
The Bears are on a two-game win streak and a big win on the road here could make things very interesting for a team that was staring a lit match ready to be thrown on their season just a few weeks back. Remember, the Bears won a road game against the San Francisco 49ers earlier this season and were playing better on the road than at home. They have a bit more confidence and are catching a Lions team that is starting to feel some desperation.
These are Jim Caldwell’s Lions, however, and his influence seems to have this team a bit more reeled in than the previous regimes did (that is, if you can overlook another idotic display of meatheadedness by Lions center Dominic Raiola). Detroit has not played well offensively although credit has to be given to both the Cardinals and Patriots, who boast two of the better defenses in the league. A great defense like the Lions’, in the past, may have been able to get by with minimal scoring, but in today’s NFL, teams have to score in order to win. It’s all about the offenses and the Lions are now the 21st-ranked offense in the league.
The quarterbacks in this game are both battling inconsistency so we could be in for another low-scoring game that features several turnovers or just plainly a defensive battle. It seems a little odd to be saying that with Chicago’s defense ranked 21st overall in terms of yards per game allowed, but if Detroit continues having trouble finding the end zone, that ranking may become moot. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford continues to show flashes of greatness only to throw his way into more doubt. Jay Cutler has been doing that since he stepped foot in Chicago, hasn’t he? Whoever makes fewer mistakes in this one likely walks away a winner. Both have solid and big receivers that will test and give fits to the opposing secondaries. The Bears need to approach this game like they have nothing to lose and get physical. The Lions are already in that mindset and ready for a dog fight.
The Lions will be looking to get running back Reggie Bush back for this game and his return would likely give a big boost to Detroit’s ground game, which is currently 30th best. The Bears are just hoping that Raiola continues to whiff badly on his kneel down jujitsu chop block attempts.
Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) at Minnesota Vikings (4-7)
Here’s a game between two teams with little to gain and next-to-nothing to lose. The Panthers are coming off of their bye week after a tough home loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings came oh-so-close to an upset win over Rodgers and the Packers that might have catapulted their season in a better direction, but. . .they didn’t.
A quite story line in this game are some barbs that were tossed at Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn by former Panthers teammate and corner Josh Norman. When asked what Munnerlyn taught him during their two years together in Carolina, Norman said Munnerlyn had “short man” syndrome and wasn’t helpful at all. Too bad they’re both defensive players and we won’t get to see any one-on-one match ups in that ballyhoo of a rivalry!
But in all seriousness, not much else to say here other than both quarterbacks, Cam Newon for Carolina and Teddy Bridgewater for Minnesota, need to continue to improve and get back on track this season. Newton has been battling the ankle injury he suffered in training camp and Bridgewater is learning on the job as a rookie with a young supporting cast around him and first-time head coach. Both have battled issues with accuracy and if that is the case this week, look for the Vikings to take advantage, with the much better defense of the two.
New England Patriots (9-2) at Green Bay Packers (8-3)
It’s hard to find an AFC team that the Packers have more of a “rivalry” with than the Patriots. Since the two met in Super Bowl XXXI, this series has seen its share of competitive games and usually featuring both teams as two of the league’s elite when they meet. That is, if you throw out the shutout trouncing the Patriots put on the Packers in 2006 when they were spying on opposing teams and stretching all sorts of rules. . but I digress.
When the schedule came out, this game was circled as one that many were looking forward to. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady leading their teams in what was sure to be an offensive fireworks show between two of the game’s best quarterbacks. 13 weeks later, that’s still what we could be looking at. While temperatures should be in the low 30’s for this one, there’s still a good chance of a pass-happy afternoon. The Packers will always live and die by the pass as long as Rodgers is upright and behind center and Belichick likely can’t resist testing the sometimes-inconsistent Packers secondary.
That’s not to say that the run games won’t factor in. Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy is coming off of his second 100-yard performance of the season and all while dealing with a stomach bug. Too bad these aren’t the Vikings, though, as both of Lacy’s 100-yard days came against the guys in purple. The Patriots rank 14th against the run, giving up just over 108 yards per game. With nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the middle, the Packers won’t find the treading very easy this week, but they can’t abandon the ground game if they want to eat any clock and rest their defense. For the Patriots, they turned to an outside source to boost their run game. After his other-worldly performance against the Indianapolis Colts the week prior, Jonas Gray found himself in Belichick’s dog house when he overslept for practice and was subsequently benched for the game against Detroit. The Patriots turned to LeGarrette Blount, who was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers the week prior. Perhaps it was New England’s familiarity with Blount that led to the move or perhaps it was game film of Blount bludgeoning the Packers in 2011 when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Obviously Green Bay’s defense is much different now than they were then, but the Packers are still struggling to stop the run and some of the tackling issues have reared their ugly head in recent weeks. Either way, a back like Blount is not what the Packers likely wanted to see coming into this week.
The Packers seemed to escape the Vikings game without any new major injuries. They could also get a few pieces back they did not have last week in that of linebacker Nick Perry and cornerback Jarrett Bush. Perry’s absence was especially felt with Julius Peppers and Mike Neal both having to play more snaps than usual and also mixing in some Jayrone Elliott. The pass rush wasn’t what it has been and without it against the Patriots, the Packers secondary is a sitting duck. Perry is far from an X-factor, but the ability to rotate him in has proven to give the Green Bay defense a boost.
With passing very prevalent, the secondaries will be on display. For New England, Darrelle Revis will likely line up on Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. Nelson had eight catches against the Vikings, but wasn’t able to get behind the coverage as he had in week’s past. Between Revis’ cover skills and Belichick’s likely staying in a cover-2 shell all day, Nelson and the rest of the Packers receivers will have to be patient and methodically work their way down field. The home run ball may once again elude them. For the Packers, the defense frankly needs to turn in its best performance of the season if they want to win this game. Some of the communication issues that had plagued Green Bay in recent years past seemed to show up against the Vikings. With shifty receivers running underneath all day and borderline pick routes, discipline and communication are the keys for the Packers defensive backs.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been able to send a safety in on a blitz on occasion but against Brady & Co, he may not have that luxury. That Rob Gronkowski guy at tight end is a massive target and will garner a ton of attention from the Packers pass defense. If at any point we see A.J. Hawk covering Gronk and even worse, lined up one-on-one, it’s touchdown Pats. Let’s hope Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had already thought of that months and months ago. Look for the Pats to use play action and the aggressiveness of the Packers safeties in run support against them to take a few shots down field or just feed Gronk and watch him turn Packers defenders into bowling pins.
This one comes down to preparation, coaching and execution. If there is a weakness to be found on the Packers, Belichick will find it and use it to his full advantage. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy will likely find some tendencies that he wants to exploit as well, but the question still remains as to whether he can go toe-to-toe with Hoodie. McCarthy will rely on his players to carry out his ideas that are carefully crafted. Belichick will mix in some trickery at just the right time.
This is one of those games where you almost expect the Packers to come out uber focused and after much film study. Perhaps too much, to be honest. In the end, it’s a football game and plays are made with confidence and ability. Book smarts won’t help the Packers get a huge win this week. Lambeau Field alone won’t help them get a win either. They just need to make a few more plays and spoil Brady’s last visit to Green Bay. A win would catapult the Packers into the “elite team” conversation at just about the time that teams want to be at their best.
I’m glad I kept this game’s thoughts short n’ sweet! I’ll end with this: Eat up, enjoy the holidays and be thankful that you’re not a Lions, Bears or even worse, a Vikings fan this year!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: