Pack Wins This Cat Fight, Now Pass the GravyPosted:Nov 23rd, 2011 4:00 pm
For most of us, this will be a Thanksgiving Day unlike any other. I was five months old, no doubt watching the game from my Grandma Dorothy's lap, the last time a Turkey Day like this rolled around. On that day in '62 we know that the 10-0 Packers rolled into the Motor City and left with its only loss in what would be a championship season.
Deja vu time. Here come the unbeaten champs looking for their 17th straight win and a chance to close out the NFC North race before anyone passes around the cranberry sauce. But the Lions have been one of the surprise stories of this season: everyone expected them to be improved, maybe a borderline playoff team; but their 5-0 start got everyone's attention. They've come down to earth since, but boast a talented roster that showed in both games against the Pack last season that they're not scared of the big, bad champs.
When the Packers played in this game in '07 and '09, the crowd was filled with Cheeseheads, 25-30,000 easily in each game. That will not be the case on Thursday. You can bet Lions fans will dominate and the environment will match the Metrodome in '09, when the bandwagon Vikings fans crowded back on to watch Brett Favre face his former team. This one will feel like the Atlanta playoff game. Ford Field will be electric. Sure, there will still be Packer fans--you'll notice them the first time John Kuhn makes a play.
So let's take a look at the matchup. The Packers have been installed as six point favorites, a bigger number than I expected. That means the wise guys in Vegas believe the Pack would beat them by nine, if they played on a neutral field.
The Lions have taken on the identity of their defensive line, which is the best in the NFL. They're aggressive, cocky and at times, cheap shot artists. The greatness that is second year tackle Ndamukong Suh has been tainted by the league-leading eight personal foul calls he's been hit with. He made a pilgrimage on his own to the commissioner's office a couple weeks back to try to understand why he's being picked on. Former Packer Corey Williams lines up next to him, though he's nursing a sore calf. Expect a larger dose of rookie Nick Fairley (the guy the Vikings should have drafted in the first round). Their pass rushers, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch are very good--Newhouse and Bulaga will have to be razor sharp against these guys, and deal with the crowd noise at the same time.
Where the Lions have improved is in the secondary and at linebacker. A couple of free agent pickups have really paid dividends. Former Brown Eric Wright is a big upgrade at corner and he's raised the level of play of Chris Houston. They also added former Titan Steven Tulloch at linebacker--that unit has gotten younger and more athletic.
All that said, the unit gave up 35 points to the Panthers and fell behind 24-7. The Pack should be able to move the ball up and down the field, provided Rodgers isn't running for his life. If the offensive line holds up, Green Bay should be able to score 40 points on Thursday. Concerns for the Packers' offense begins with James Starks, who appears to have dodged a serious knee injury, but is nursing a sore knee and ankle. As I write this, we don't know if, or how much he will play. Assuming they don't get much out of him, Grant, Kuhn and maybe Brandon Saine need to step up. The Lions are vulnerable against the run and the Pack can't be completely one-dimensional against that front four.
Greg Jennings' knee injury is another concern. The Michigan native always plays well in Detroit. But he was ineffective after banging his knee early against the Bucs. He will start but watch him early to see whether he's close to 100%. If he's not, the Lions can play extra attention to emerging star Jordy Nelson.
Defensively, the Packers must harass Matthew Stafford, who's playing with a fractured right index finger. He's thrown six picks the past two weeks--his accuracy is being affected and the opportunistic Pack secondary must make him pay. He did throw five TD passes to five different receivers Sunday, none of them named Calvin Johnson. Megatron is having a Randy Moss season and Tramon Williams will have to play him better than he played Mike Williams last week. In seven career games against the Pack, Johnson averages five catches for 85 yards and a score. Hold him to that on Thursday and I'll be happy. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a concern. He's coming off a huge game and the Lions saw what Kellen Winslow was able to do on Sunday.
The biggest game-tipper may be the Lions running game. Up until Sunday they haven't had one since Jahvid Best suffered yet another concussion about a month ago. But in stepped Kevin Smith last week, signed off the street two weeks ago, his career derailed by multiple knee injuries. All he did against a suspect Panther defense was roll up 201 yards, 140 on the ground and three TDs. If he is able to run on the Pack the Lions will score points in bunches.
You want one-on-one matchups? Here are two to watch: Josh Sitton vs. Suh. Sitton is nursing a sore knee and looks nothing like the emerging Pro Bowler we saw last season. He's drawing penalties and getting beat by lesser opponents. He'll need Wells' help to keep Suh away from #12. Next, Clay Matthews vs. Gosder Cherilus. If Matthews is 100% he should feast in this one. Cherilus looks like a first round bust--he really struggles against speed guys. Stafford becomes a different guy once you plant him a couple of times. Matthews gives the Pack the best chance at accomplishing that.
So what does the Pack need to do to move to 11-0? Deal with the crowd noise--no pre-snap penalties. Don't stoop to the Lions' level if they try to bait them into tussles and post-play shoving matches. Keep the pedal to the metal. The Lions have come back to win three times after trailing by at least 17 points (an NFL record). Don't go into conservative mode if you grab an early lead. Take advantage on special teams: they've given up a punt return TD and kick return TD in the past two weeks and are using a new punter. Keep Rodgers healthy and upright: we all know what happened in this game last year.
I watch the Lions the last four weeks and I don't see a team playing at the Packers' level. But this is their Super Bowl, their chance to show they deserve to be mentioned among the NFC elite. Feels a lot like the playoff game in Atlanta--maybe we see the same outcome. Detroit has lost its last seven Thanksgiving Day games (and hasn't covered the spread in any of them). Last year they led Tom Brady and the Patriots 17-10 at the half and lost 45-24. Last week, they let Cam Newton and the Panthers look like the greatest show on turf. They've already lost home games to the Falcons and 49ers. They're stepping up in class on Thursday.
In a shootout, I've got it Packers 38 Lions 34
Since there's no "Packer Preview" before the game, feel free to listen to my condensed podcast. It should be up by late in the day on Wednesday. I'll be on the Fan Sunday morning to do a "Packer Review" show at 8am. Until then, I hope everybody has a great Thanksgiving Day with family and/or friends.
And that the Packers give us one extra thing to be thankful for as we pass around the turkey and mashed potatoes.