OK, it’s time for a little positivity around here. That obituary I wrote about six weeks ago? Clearly a motivational tactic. Aaron Rodgers’ ‘run the table’ comment could join Joe Namath and Matt Hasselbeck in NFL lore, but there’s one order of business left.
The Packers return to Ford Field Sunday night with one item left on their to-do list. As you know, this will likely serve as the first playoff game of the NFL season, unless the unmotivated NY Giants can beat a hungry Washington team on the road–something you probably shouldn’t count on.
The Packers are 3.5 point road favorites for a number of reasons. They’re the hottest team in the NFC, Aaron Rodgers is playing at an MVP level, their defense has gotten healthier and they have had two more days to rest and prepare for this game.
But Ford Field has not been the home away from home it used to be. The Packers had dropped two straight there before last year’s Motown Hail Mary Miracle. They’re calling this game the hottest ticket in Ford Field history, so the atmosphere will be electric.
So what’s different about this Lions team from the week 3 matchup? Their defense has improved greatly, tightening up in the red zone and forcing a lot of field goals. Their 13th in points and 15th in yards and will likely get their most important player back for this game, corner Darius Slay, who’s missed the last three games with a hamstring. He returned to practice in a limited fashion this week and all signs point to his playing. If he’s close to 100%, the Lions defense will look a lot better than it did in Dallas.
This Lions team is also different from previous vintages in that they’re not as explosive offensively. They struggle to move the ball on the ground without scatback Theo Riddick, who looks to miss this game. Former Eagan HS star Zach Zenner gave their ground game a lift early in Monday’s game and figures to get a heavy load in this one as well.
But Detroit will go only as far as Matthew Stafford can take them and he’s clearly been a different QB since injuring his middle finger. He was having his best season before the injury, but now is missing throws he usually makes and is turning the ball over: he’s tossed one TD and four picks since the injury. To make matters worse, dependable third down and red zone target Anquan Boldin is also dealing with a finger injury which has limited him in practice all week.
The Packers defense will need to duplicate the blueprint from last week: take away the running game and apply pressure to force Stafford into mistakes. Hopefully Nick Perry will have a smaller club on his hand so he can be more effective and Clay Matthews can be the game changing force he was against the Vikings.
Sounds like the Pack dodged a bullet with the elbow injury to LaDarius Gunter and he will play Sunday night. The corners need to cover and tackle better than they did last week, particularly against guys like Golden Tate and Eric Ebron. Marvin Jones, who torched the Pack in week 3 has been pretty much MIA ever since. I’ve got a feeling Jake Ryan has a big game in his return to Michigan.
As for the Pack’s offense, look for them to run the ball a lot more effectively than they did last weekend. The Lions have struggled against the run all season, and this feels like a game where Ty Montomery can shine. If Slay is back and close to 100%, he’ll likely try to take Jordy Nelson out of the picture. It remains to be seen whether Randall Cobb can play. They’ve held him out of practice all week to try to get that ankle right. With Cobb, Adams, Cook and the emerging Geronimo Allison, the Packers have enough weapons to make things very difficult for the Lions secondary.
I’m done betting against Rodgers at this point. The Pack is on a roll and the Lions are doing what the Lions do. It won’t be easy and it might go down to the wire, but the Packers are too hot to let the division slip through their fingers. Bring on Eli and the Giants, the Pack will be waiting for them next weekend.
Packers 31 Lions 27