The NFC North and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs are on the line as bitter division rivals Detroit and Green Bay clash to close out the 2016 regular season. The two teams enter heading in vastly different directions, as the Lions have lost two straight to put their postseason hopes in peril while the Packers are one of, if not the, hottest teams in the league after five straight victories after Thanksgiving.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the biggest reason for that resurgence from the cheeseheads, throwing for 14 touchdowns and no picks in his last six games and topping the 4,000-yard mark this season once again. The team’s ground game went through some tough stretches but seems to have found something in converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who has found the end zone for three rushing scores in the past three games. The tandem fuel a high-scoring attack that has powered one of the more impressive teams of the last month as Green Bay has gone from struggling to sudden Super Bowl contender out of the NFC.
The Lions are no strangers to high-powered offenses considering they have one of the most dangerous in the league thanks to quarterback Matthew Stafford. The signal-caller has struggled in back-to-back weeks but deservingly garnered some early MVP talk as a result of an incredible number of fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s feasted on division opponents at Ford Field the past two years but will need to save his best for this one if he, Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin want to return to the playoffs.
Green Bay has won the past two in a row in the longtime series, including the last one in a 34-27 win up at Lambeau. Detroit has won two of the past three at Ford Field however and is hoping to add another victory to the ledger on Sunday night.
Green Bay at Detroit
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Packers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Stopping Jordy Nelson
Last week, Vikings cornerbacks decided to pull a bit of a mutiny on their coaching staff and go away from the game plan designed to defend against Nelson. The result? A nine-catch, 154-yard and two-touchdown day for Green Bay’s No. 1 wide receiver. The Lions gave up several big plays to Cowboys star Dez Bryant on Monday night and it’s doubtful once again that top cornerback Darius Slay — who returned to practice just on Wednesday — will be 100 percent for this massive game. What will the Detroit defense have in store for Nelson and company? We’ll find out come kickoff but it will almost assuredly play a huge role for the home team if the Lions want to capture the division title.
2. Finding a Ground Game
It’s not a coincidence that the Lions’ recent slide has coincided with the absence of tailback Theo Riddick, who is questionable for the game against the Packers as he continues to deal with a wrist injury. Zach Zenner provided a jolt in the first half last week against the Cowboys but wasn’t used much after that as the team had to dig out of a big deficit. Things don’t look all that much better for the Packers, who are so thin in the backfield that No. 88, wide receiver Ty Montgomery, has been officially a running back for the past month and has averaged six yards a carry on the season. With neither team doing all that much on the ground, you would expect a heavy dose of the passing game but the winner of this one will likely come down to whichever team can more effectively establish the run and keep the defenses honest.
3. Fighting Up Front
It doesn’t seem that long ago when we were talking about all the great pieces these two defenses had in making a run at the division title but that really isn’t the case coming into this one given how banged up both sides are. While the offense has been the biggest feather in Green Bay’s cap during this recent run, the Packers have received a nice surge on the other side of the ball thanks to the return of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry down the stretch and the former in particular played well last week against the Vikings. The Lions have expected more from their big two up front in Haloti Ngata and Ziggy Ansah, and the pass-happy attack of Green Bay represents a great opportunity for both to make an impact on the game. There may be more than 80 pass attempts combined in this matchup so each team’s front seven will be huge in the battle at the line of scrimmage in an effort to dictate the tempo in this one.
There may be quite a bit of scoreboard watching going on for both teams on Sunday as a Washington win against the New York Giants — who won’t play their starters much — would result in this Sunday night rivalry game being for the division title and make it a win-and-in situation when it comes to the playoffs. Detroit and Green Bay both took different paths to this point in a pair of roller-coaster seasons but each has to be excited over the prospect of this one given the stakes at hand.
The Packers of course want to keep up their winning ways by capturing a fifth division title in the past six years. In order to do that, they need to make it six straight in the win column after quarterback Aaron Rodgers presciently said the team would win out. The signal-caller has keyed the team’s resurgence thanks to his connection in the passing game with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and company. Sure there were some struggles during the first half of the year but make no mistake, this is one of the best offenses in the league and the defense is starting to round into form too as that unit gets healthier.
Standing in their way is a Lions squad hoping to avoid the late-season slides of years past and finish with a surprising return to the playoffs. The team has been middle of the pack for the first three quarters in just about every game but has had an incredible fourth quarter kick thanks to the heroics of Matthew Stafford and his potent aerial attack. The team has been out of sorts the past few weeks however and will need to reverse its troubling play or else it will be a quick fall from potentially hosting a postseason game to out of the tournament all together.
While you figure Detroit will certainly put up a big fight and keep things close throughout, Green Bay is rolling right now unlike few teams in the NFL and should prove too hard to slow down for the home team. In the end the Packers emerge as the NFC North champions thanks to a high-scoring win over their rivals.
Prediction: Packers 33, Lions 27
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.