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First place in the NFC North is on the line when Jim Schwartz and the Lions host the Packers on Thanksgiving Day
The NFL’s longest-running Thanksgiving Day rivalry will be renewed when the Detroit Lions host the Green Bay Packers at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Besides serving as the first course to the Turkey Day tripleheader, first place in the NFC North is at stake with the Lions (6-5), Bears (6-5) and Packers (5-5-1) all fighting for the head seat at the table.
Detroit, along with Dallas, is considered the two traditional Thanksgiving Day hosts. Green Bay also has an extensive history of playing on Turkey Day, as this represents the 21st meeting between the Lions and Packers on the fourth Thursday in November. Detroit holds a 11-8-1 edge over Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, but the Packers have won the last three. The Lions have dropped their last nine Thanksgiving Day games overall.
4 Things to Watch
Detroit and Green Bay first played each other back in Week 5. The Lions entered that game 3-1 with the Packers sitting at 2-2 and coming off of their bye. Green Bay would win 22-9 at Lambeau Field, as the Lions were missing their top two wide receivers — Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson – due to injury. Without two of his biggest weapons, quarterback Matthew Stafford struggled (25-of-40, sacked five times), as the Lions finished with 286 yards of total offense and their only touchdown came with a little more than two minutes left in the game. The Packers were led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers (274-1-0), and they piled up 180 yards rushing, including 72 from wide receiver Randall Cobb. Fast-forward to this week and both teams have been spinning their wheels lately. The Lions have lost two in a row, including last week’s disappointing 24-21 home loss to a two-win Tampa Bay team. The Packers haven’t won since Week 8, as they have three losses and last week’s 26-26 tie with the Vikings. Green Bays slide can be largely attributed to injuries, as Cobb remains out with a broken leg, tight end Jermichael Finley is on injured reserve after recently undergoing spinal fusion surgery, and Rodgers has missed the past three games after breaking his collarbone in Week 9 against Chicago. So while Detroit was the banged-up team entering the first meeting, it’s Green Bay that’s really feeling the hurt for this one, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. The question is can Jim Schwartz’s struggling Lions team take advantage of Mike McCarthy’s (above, right) depleted Packers roster?
Green Bay’s Quarterback Carousel
Aaron Rodgers returned to practice on Monday, the latest step in his recovery from the broken collarbone he sustained on Nov. 4. But even after that brief appearance, head coach Mike McCarthy characterized Rodgers’ chances of playing this week as “Closer to none.” So barring something short of a miracle, the Packers will turn to either Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn to get them back into the win column. Tolzien became the starter following a season-ending groin injury to backup Seneca Wallace against Philadelphia in Week10. Tolzien, a third-year pro from Wisconsin, finished with 280 yards passing against the Eagles and followed that up with 339 against the Giants in his first career start, but he also had five interceptions and just one touchdown. Last week, he was ineffective (7-of-17, 98 yards) against Minnesota, resulting in McCarthy replacing him in the fourth quarter with Flynn. Trailing by 16, Flynn proceeded to lead the team to two touchdowns and the game-tying field goal with just 46 seconds left. Flynn couldn’t complete the comeback in overtime, as the Packers and Vikings traded field goals and settled for a 26-26 tie, but he finished his afternoon with 218 yards passing and a touchdown in less than two quarters of play. Flynn, who served as Rodgers’ backup from 2008-11 before signing a three-year, $20.5 million contract with Seattle, had already spent time this season with both Oakland (2 G, 1 GS) and Buffalo (0 G), before returning to Green Bay after Wallace was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 11. In his first action back in a Packers uniform, all Flynn did was nearly pull of a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback and in the process create something that McCarthy hasn’t had to deal with since Rodgers became the starter in 2008 – a quarterback controversy. The short week only complicates the decision facing McCarthy, as he must prepare both Tolzien and Flynn to face the Lions. Ideally, the starter gets most of the reps in practice, but that may not be the case this week because of the short turnaround. The Packers’ offense was clearly more productive with Flynn under center last week, but is that enough to convince McCarthy to give him the ball? Or does Tolzien get another shot since he’s been with the team longer this season? One other thing that McCarthy may need to consider is that in Flynn’s last start as a Packer in Week 17 of the 2011 season he threw for what was then a franchise-record 480 yards and six touchdowns. Green Bay’s opponent that game? None other than the Detroit Lions.
Can the Lions Keep Both Paws on the Ball?
Detroit is fifth in the NFL in total offense (412.1 ypg) and seventh in scoring offense (26.0 ppg), but yet the Lions are just 6-5. While there have been some defensive letdowns, particularly in the past two games, the main culprit has been turnovers. After committing just eight turnovers in their first seven games, the Lions have coughed it up 13 times over their last four. They are very fortunate to have gone 2-2 during this stretch, as they managed to come from behind and defeat the Cowboys in Week 8 despite losing the turnover battle 4-0. The Lions haven’t been as fortunate the past two weeks, however, as eight total turnovers resulted in losses to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Prior to beating the Lions, the Steelers had won just three games, while the Buccaneers had jus two victories. Matthew Stafford is responsible for five of the Lions’ eight miscues over the past month, as he has tossed a total of eight interceptions over his last four games, but there also have been three lost fumbles. The Lions are capable of gaining a bunch of yards and putting plenty of points on the board. However, as the past two weeks have shown, they need to take better care of the football if they want this statistical success to carry over to the win column.
How will the Packers handle the Thanksgiving Day Rush?
With injuries impacting the quarterback position (see above), Green Bay has had to rely more on its ground game to move the ball on offense. The flip side of this, however, is the Packers also need to a fix a rushing defense that has been gashed on more than one occasion recently. The Packers have turned to rookie Eddie Lacy to carry the ball, as he’s seen 22 or more carries in all but one game going back to the Week 5 meeting with Detroit. In that home win over the Lions, Lacy finished with 99 yards rushing. He has followed up that strong performance with four other efforts of at least 90 yards on the ground, along with six rushing touchdowns. The Lions’ defense has really stiffened against the run over their past five games as well, giving up an average of less than 44 yards rushing per contest. Unfortunately, the Packers’ rush defense has gone the opposite direction. After holding opponents to just 79 yards rushing per game in its first six games, Green Bay has yielded 171 yards or more in three of their last four contests. That span also covers the Packers’ current slide of three straight losses followed by last week’s tie with the Vikings. So whether it’s Lacy finding room to run or the Packers’ defense standing strong against the Lions’ ground game, Green Bay needs to be at the head of the line when it comes to the holiday “rush” at Ford Field on Thursday.
Green Bay Key Player: Clay Matthews, LB
Matthews broke his right thumb in the Week 5 win over Detroit, which caused him to miss the next four games. He returned in Week 10 against Philadelphia, a game in which the Eagles rushed for 204 yards. Last week, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings gashed the Packers for 232 yards on the ground. Since Matthews’ return, Green Bay has lost two games and tied one. And in the process, the Packers have given up nearly 400 yards per game, including 171 yards rushing per contest. Matthews does have three sacks in his last two games and leads the team with six, but his impact on the defensive end against the Lions on Thursday needs to go beyond just pressuring quarterback Matthew Stafford. Because if the Lions are able to run on the Packers’ defense as successfully as the Eagles and Vikings, then Stafford may not even need to throw a bunch of passes in the first place.
Detroit Key Player: Reggie Bush, RB
Everyone knows the Lions’ offense begins with quarterback Matthew Stafford, usually connecting with wide receiver Calvin Johnson, but Bush is certainly an important piece as well. In the Lions’ six wins, Bush Is averaging 122.3 total yards per game. In the five losses that number drops to just 77.2. He had 69 total yards (44 rush, 25 receiving) against Green Bay in Week 5, a game in which Detroit posted season lows in both yards (286) and points (9). Granted, Johnson, along with No. 2 wide receiver Nate Burleson, both missed that game because of injury, but Bush’s lack of contributions certainly didn’t help matters either. Also, Green Bay’s rushing defense has struggled mightily recently, surrendering 171.4 yards rushing per game over its last four. Johnson has already proven tough to stop this season, but if Bush can get it going early, the Packers’ defense may have a no-win situation on its hands.
Green Bay and Detroit are both headed in the same direction, which right now is backwards. The Packers haven’t won a game in a month, while the Lions have dropped their last two contests. Despite this, either team could finish this week in first place in the NFC North, depending on what happens when Chicago visits Minnesota on Sunday.
Even with the consecutive losses, the Lions appear to be in much better shape entering this game, as the Packers have had quarterback issues from the moment Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 9. While I like Green Bay’s chances better with Matt Flynn under center than Scott Tolzien, there’s no denying the Packers’ offense is nowhere near the same unit without the 2011 NFL MVP leading the charge.
In the end, the Lions’ continuity on offense, led by the trio of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, is too much for a disjointed Packers offense to overcome. Green Bay’s defense puts up a fight and the Packers are able to hang around thanks to a few ill-timed Detroit miscues, but the Lions wear down their division rivals late and put an end to their nine-game losing streak on Thanksgiving Day.
Detroit 31, Green Bay 23