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Green Bay Packers Week 17 Preview: Detroit Lions

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Packers, Lions Battle For NFC North Crown In Season Finale

For the fourth year in a row, the Green Bay Packers (9-6) enter Week 17 preparing for a winner-take-all NFC North title game. This time around, they’ll be facing a divisional opponent; the Detroit Lions (9-6).

Following a slow start (4-6), the Packers have won five straight, while the Lions have dropped two in a row to playoff teams in the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. Just a few short weeks ago it felt like Detroit or Minnesota would run away with the North, but now Green Bay is only one game away from coming through on Aaron Rodgers’ prediction that his team would “run the table.”

For Detroit, it has to feel a little like a bad case of déjà vu.

In 2014, the two teams faced off in a Week 17 match-up with the same implications as Sunday, and much like this season, the words of Aaron Rodgers dominated the airwaves.

Only it wasn’t a prediction, it was a suggestion early in the season to all of Packer Nation to simply R-E-L-A-X.

After they started 1-2, Rodgers spelled out his thoughts to those that were listening, and Green Bay responded by winning 11 of their next 13 games. The last of those being against the Lions for the North, a game that also secured Rodgers’ his second NFL MVP.

It  seems when Rodgers talks, his teammates listen. That’s why even if it was seen as improbable from the outside, those within the Packers organization believed him when he suggested a six-game winning streak this season.

In order to run the table,  they’ll have to defeat a Matthew Stafford-led Detroit Lions team that refuses to quit.

However, history says the smart money is on Rodgers.

Aaron Rodgers vs Matthew Stafford – Part XI

Since Stafford took over as the Lions starting quarterback in 2009 he’s gone head-to-head with Rodgers 10 times, losing eight.

In those games, Rodgers has throw 19 touchdown passes to only two interceptions, while Stafford has thrown for 14 scores and 15 interceptions. It’s been a story of two vastly different quarterbacks and teams through much of the rivalry, if you can call it a rivalry, as Stafford and the Lions‘ inability to win big games when they matter most has continually kept them from the top.

For example, Stafford has beaten the same number of winning teams in his eight years as Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott has in his rookie campaign: five. This is something that has plagued Detroit as an organization for a while now, and their struggle to find a clutch performer under center is a big reason why they haven’t won a division title since 1993.

When the two teams matched up in late September, the Packers won 34-27 at Lambeau Field, but the game never felt that close.

Rodgers threw for four touchdown passes in the first half and created a 31-10 cushion for Green Bay before Mike McCarthy took his foot off the gas and allowed Stafford to mount a comeback near the end of the game. Despite his stats looking solid, a majority of Stafford’s near 400 yards and three touchdowns came in the fourth quarter with the Packers defense in a prevent.

With that said, there’s not a quarterback in the league that possess the ability to bounce back from mistakes and bad starts better than Matthew Stafford. In the Lions nine wins this season, he has led a 4th quarter comeback in eight of them. For his career, Stafford has won 51 games with 28 coming from comebacks, meaning 54.9% of his wins have come while once trailing late in the game.

That’s why it’s as important as ever for Green Bay to avoid going conservative if they get an early lead, because there’s no doubt the Lions will make a late run.

Packers Defense Must Bring Pressure, Force Turnovers

In order to neutralize an offense as dangerous as Detroit‘s, the Packers defense will need to play aggressive from the opening snap. Stafford possess one of the quickest releases in the league, but his recent finger injury has slowed his timing and affected his accuracy, causing him to turn the ball over five times and only throw for one touchdown the past three games.

Despite his struggles, if you sit back and let the Lions dictate the pace they become hard to defend, but as the Dallas Cowboys proved last week if you bring heat they have a tendency to crumble.

During the Packers hot streak, doing just that has been their greatest strength.

As a whole for the season, the Green Bay defense has been pretty bad on paper. Coming in 26th in passer rating allowed (95.9), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.0) and 25th in completion percentage (64.9), but have succeeded in crucial game-changing categories.

They currently rank 5th in sacks (38), 3rd in interceptions (16), and are tied for 7th in total takeaways (24). Of the latter two, the Packers have picked off 8 of their 16 balls and forced 13 of their 24 turnovers the past three weeks.

This has been thanks in large part to a healthy Clay Matthews being back on the field and in the pass rush.

His presence alone seems to spark the defense, and last week against the Minnesota Vikings he looked as good as he ever has, swatting two balls and creating havoc in front of Sam Bradford. His return once again allowed Nick Perry to shine on the opposite edge, recording two of his 10 sacks on the year in the second half.

Against a Lions team that has been turning the ball over at will as of late, an increased effort towards forcing Stafford into bad throws will be key in containing them. If the sometimes iffy Packers secondary is forced to be in coverage for too long on guys like Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, and Marvin Jones Jr., it’s a definite advantage Detroit.

Nelson, Green Bay Skill Players Must Exploit Beat Up Lions Defense

If you look around the NFL, there isn’t a wide-out playing better than Jordy Nelson of the Packers right now.

In Green Bay’s five-game winning streak he has caught 38 balls for 528 receiving yards and five touchdowns, currently placing him at 91 catches for 1,191 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year. This is notable because Nelson is only nine receptions, nine yards, and one touchdown short of becoming just the 5th player in history with a 100-1,200-15 season. The other four being Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, and Cris Carter. Not a bad group.

His once elite speed has slowly been returning after a year missed due to a torn ACL, and he is reeling off more and more vintage 2014-like deep plays from Rodgers.

The duo’s remarkable re-connection as of late is bad news for a Lions secondary that can’t seem to stay healthy.

Detroit currently ranks last in passer rating allowed (105.0) and completion percentage (72.9), are tied for 21st in yards per attempt allowed (7.5), and have allowed 12 of 15 opposing quarterbacks to surpass their season averages in QB rating.

Their number one corner, Darius Slay, is by far the best playmaker in Detroit’s defense. Although over the past few weeks he has had trouble getting, and staying on the field with a hamstring injury. He returned to practice in a limited capacity this week and is expected to play, but if he isn’t 100% Nelson and Davante Adams may have a field day on the outside.

Aside from Slay, there isn’t a lot of talent anywhere else on the Lions defense. Two exceptions may be linebacker’s DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead.

Levy was an All-Pro linebacker in 2014, but was out for a majority of the past two seasons due to injury. Remarkably, last time he played against Green Bay was the aforementioned NFC North title game in 2014.

He has missed 11 games in total this season but his usage has increase slightly each of the past three games. His main objective, along with Whitehead, will be containing Packers running back Ty Montgomery and tight end Jared Cook.

Montgomery and Cook have provided help within the Green Bay offense at two positions that have hindered them over the last few seasons.

Cook missed games early in the season with ankle problems, but since his return has played extremely well in big passing downs and has given Rodgers a big target to throw the ball to over the middle of the field.

Per Packers.comRodgers is 9-of-11 for 172 yards (118.8 passer rating) when throwing to Cook on third down this season, converting eight of those for first downs. He’s a match-up nightmare for anyone, but especially for a beat up team like Detroit. Like Matthews on the defense, his presence seems to elevate the play of everyone around him.

When Cook has been on the field, Rodgers has thrown for 15 touchdowns and only one interception (ESPN Stats & Information). The 6’5 tight end is an eye catcher for defenses, and his ability to draw defenders to himself and alleviate pressure from the rest of the wide-outs and backs is a sticking point to why the Packers offense has been so successful recently.

The amount of firepower now available to the soon-to-be 3-time MVP Rodgers, and the Lions inability to reach the quarterback in pass rush seem to signal that Green Bay should be able to overwhelm a Detroit defense that is nowhere near the caliber of some of the teams they have beaten on their quest to “run the table”.

Final Thoughts

Green Bay has come back from the brink of death to earn the chance to play for their playoff lives one more time. Like the previous five weeks, losing is not an option in this game.

And the key to the Packers success in the month of December is the same key that will lead them to victory Sunday night, winning the turnover battle.

While forcing 13 takeaways in the past three games on defense, the Green Bay offense has committed none. This is compared to the Lions, who have turned it over six times in the past three games while forcing zero.

If they can continue this trend while Rodgers stays playing at a MVP level,  the Packers should be leaving Ford Field with their 5th NFC North title in the last 6 years.