NFL Preview - Green Bay (8-4) at Detroit (2-10)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - During his college days at the University of California, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in the shadows of USC star and fellow Pac-10 player Matt Leinart.
What a difference the NFL has made on the two college standouts, with Rodgers emerging as one of the top signal-callers in the game for Green Bay and Leinart buried on the depth chart for his second team in Houston.
Rodgers will try to further cement his pro legacy and move the Packers closer to a playoff berth in the crowded NFC Sunday against the NFC North-rival Detroit Lions at Ford Field. He is on pace for his third straight 4,000-yard season and has been protecting the football like an officer at the Mexican border. Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception in his last five games, spanning 177 attempts, and owns 11 touchdown passes over his past four contests. He had three scoring strikes in last Sunday's 34-16 home win over San Francisco.
"Aaron is playing sharp," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Just the emphasis, really starts with ball security, staying within the offense. That's what you want from all your players, whether it's offense, defense or special teams. He's really in a groove."
The former first-round draft pick eclipsed Brett Favre's run of 163 passes without a pick for the second-longest streak in team history, behind only Bart Starr's stretch of 294 passes without an interception. Starr is the last Green Bay quarterback to not thrown an interception in five straight games.
Rodgers had nine interceptions over this season's first seven contests, and said that it has been a "conscious" effort not to give the other team the ball. The Packers are an astounding 46-4 since 1996 when they're turnover free.
Green Bay will enter the Motor City somewhat wary of how well the Lions have played this season, despite the team's 2-10 mark. Right now the Packers are on the outside looking in for the playoffs with an 8-4 mark and sit one game behind Chicago for the NFC North lead.
Dynamic offensive players such as Rodgers and wide receiver Greg Jennings will be key to the Packers' success from here on out. With veteran wideout Donald Driver seemingly healthy again, the team will be even more potent and better prepared for a rough stretch of games to close out the regular season. Green Bay will also visit New England before hosting both the New York Giants and Bears.
Green Bay's matchup with Chicago on Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field could have division bragging rights on the line. The Bears are also among several NFC teams vying for a division title and a postseason berth.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said this week that he's optimistic about the future of the organization, and who could blame him? But for all of that to happen, he'll need injured quarterback Matthew Stafford back at full strength and that may not come to fruition until next season.
With 10 losses through 12 games, the Lions' role has been relegated to spoiler as they take on Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Miami and Minnesota to close out the regular season. Miami and Minnesota are pretty much out of the playoff picture, but winning those games only builds confidence and a solid foundation for the 2011 campaign.
"Do we still have work to do? Sure we have work to do," Schwartz said. "There's no question about that, but we're not dissatisfied in anything other than our record and [that] we haven't done a good enough job finishing the individual games."
The Lions have lost five in a row and are coming off last Sunday's 24-20 setback versus the Bears. They had a 10-point lead evaporate in the second half and inexperienced quarterback Drew Stanton had an average day with 178 passing yards with a touchdown and no turnovers.
Detroit's offense is mainly run through wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 66 yards and a score on just three catches against Chicago. Johnson can't do it all, but does have a touchdown reception in each of the last four games and 12 total on the year.
If Schwartz has plans on the future, he should start by building a better offensive line and drafting a go-to running back. Rookie Jahvid Best still could be the answer in the backfield and can prove that with a quarter of the season left. A threat both on the ground and catching passes, Best is still searching for his first 100-yard rushing game of the season. His best outing was back in Week 2 versus Philadelphia, when he had 78 yards and two scores rushing while hauling in nine passes for an additional 154 yards and a touchdown.
Detroit's defense will face another pass-happy squad on Sunday in the Packers. The team should be prepared by now after getting torched through the air by Dallas, New England and Chicago in succession.
The series between the Lions and Packers dates back to the 1930 season, with Green Bay holding an 89-64-7 regular-season advantage. The Pack has won 10 straight and 12 of the last 13 games between the storied foes, including a 28-26 victory at Lambeau Field during Week 4. Detroit's last triumph over Green Bay came at Ford in the 2005 season opener, a 17-3 verdict, with the Packers prevailing in each of their last four stops in the Motor City.
The longtime rivals have squared off only twice during the postseason, with Green Bay winning a 1993 NFC First-Round Playoff matchup in Detroit and also besting the Lions in an opening-round game in Wisconsin the following year.
McCarthy has never lost in nine lifetime meetings with Detroit, while the Schwartz is 0-3 against both McCarthy and Green Bay during his tenure in Detroit.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Having learned under Favre, Rodgers (3,243 passing yards, 23 TD, 9 INT) has taken over in Green Bay with his precise passing and natural leadership. He is on pace to break his career-high mark of 30 touchdown passes established a year ago, recorded a passer rating of 114.5 or better in each of his past four games, and owns a career rating of 121.0 versus the Lions. Rodgers had an average day in a 28-26 win versus Detroit back in Week 4, when he threw for 181 yards and three scores with a pair of interceptions. Detroit will be out for revenge this week against Rodgers, who is 5-0 against the Lions and thrown for 14 touchdown passes and just three picks in those games. He has a rating of 100 or higher in each of those meetings as well and will be looking for a sixth. Despite Jennings leading the team in catches (57) and receiving yards (944), Rodgers knows how to spread the ball around. Driver owns 38 catches this season, wideout James Jones has 37, slot receiver Jordy Nelson has hauled in 36 passes and running back Brandon Jackson rounds out the bunch with 36 receptions. Jackson (527 rushing yards, 3 TD) now has some competition at hi position with rookie James Starks emerging on the scene. Starks made his NFL debut last Sunday with 73 yards on 18 carries. John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance may also get some touches in the backfield.
Detroit's defense blew a second-half lead for the third straight game this past Sunday and won't have any wiggle room with Green Bay in town. Much like Johnson's touchdown catch in Week 1 at Chicago was nullified, Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's questionable fourth-quarter personal-foul penalty on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler opened the door for another loss. Cutler then hit blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna for a seven-yard touchdown to send Detroit to its fifth straight loss. Suh (49 tackles, 8 sacks) has been playing extremely well this season, but said afterwards that he only cares about winning. He will have to be at his best again and try and get to Rodgers before he has a chance to pick apart Detroit's secondary. End Cliff Avril (25 tackles, 7 sacks) is coming off a career-high three sacks in last Sunday's loss, but was also discouraged more with the outcome. Avril stated postgame that he's only won four times since he drafted in 2008, when Detroit went 0-16. Avril also had three tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits against a Bears team that leads the NFL in sacks allowed. Safety and leading tackler Louis Delmas (71 tackles) is the headliner of a secondary that lost starting cornerback Alphonso Smith (39 tackles, 5 INT) for the season after injuring his shoulder against the Bears.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Stafford said this week he'll try to begin throwing again with his separated shoulder, but in the meantime Stanton will get the starting nod again. Stanton (411 passing yards, 2 TD, INT) was also pressed into service in last Sunday's loss to Chicago and passed for 178 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while also running for a score. With both Stafford and Shaun Hill (finger) out with injuries, Stanton is the last option and has been average. The former Michigan State standout made his second career start in four years last week and hopes his third time out will be different. Johnson (62 receptions, 872 yards, 12 TD) can make that job a bit easier for Stanton with his intimidating physique and ability to stretch the field. He burned Green Bay for two scores in the first meeting this season and owns seven touchdown catches in Detroit's past four games against the Packers. The Lions are eighth in passing offense this season, averaging 250.3 yards per game. Expect them to try and establish the ground game right off the bat with Best (447 rushing yards, 4 TD), who has played fairly well at home with 592 scrimmage yards and three scores in the previous five contests. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, is tied for second among NFL players at his position with 60 catches, the most in the season by a Lions tight end as well. He had 91 yards receiving in the first meeting with the Packers this year.
The Packers are sixth in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 205.2 yards per game, and should be ready for a healthy dose of Johnson on Sunday. They were able to contain opponent's passing attack for a few weeks now, including a 20-17 loss to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons two Sundays ago. Granted that game in the Georgia Dome was a loss, but it still spoke volumes for how well the defense played. Cornerbacks Charles Woodson (72 tackles, 2 INT) and Tramon Williams (48 tackles, 4 INT) need to step up this week after Johnson beat Green Bay's secondary for 86 yards and two scores in the first meeting. Pettigrew chipped in 91 yards on eight catches that day. Safety Nick Collins (57 tackles, 2 INT) will also be aiming to prevent the same from occurring again this week. Green Bay's run defense and pressure on the quarterback may be limited somewhat with end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks) battling a calf injury. He had two sacks versus the 49ers, but has already been ruled out for at least this week by McCarthy. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers may have to use second-year pro Jarius Wynn (2 tackles, 1 sack) or rookie C.J. Wilson (19 tackles, sack) as Jenkins' replacement. Luckily Capers has linebackers A.J. Hawk (81 tackles) and Clay Matthews (45 tackles, 12 sacks) healthy and available.
Rodgers and his gaggle of fantasy stars should thrive Sunday in Motown. Besides Jennings, it's tough to gauge what other Green Bay receiver will have a breakout performance, however. Driver seems to be the best bet, since he's back at full strength. Green Bay's defense and kicker Mason Crosby are also must-starts.
Johnson is Detroit's only fantasy option. Pettigrew and Best are good picks in deeper leagues and for owners who are desperate.
The NFC playoff picture is as cloudy as Jeff Spicoli's van, with several teams vying for a berth. Green Bay would be out of the playoff picture if the season ended last week, making every game from here on out very crucial. Three of the Packers' four remaining games are against the NFC, and they'll get started with a big win at Ford Field behind another precise showing from Rodgers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Lions 13
12/09 15:46:32 ET