Can the Packers put it together with Brett Hundley under center?
One team has a healthy quarterback who can’t score in the red zone. The other has a quarterback still learning how to score, period.
But while Matthew Stafford may make the difference in his team’s playoff hopes, all eyes in Monday night’s NFL matchup between the Lions and Packers will be on Brett Hundley. The Packers' backup quarterback will make his second start after Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury, this time armed with a bye week and some time to get used to snaps with the first-team offense.
“We worked exclusively through the week,” said head coach Mike McCarthy, who confirmed Hundley stayed in Green Bay through his “vacation.” “I think it’s valuable, (to let him) catch his breath, have a little more time. I think that’s always beneficial when you can step away from the normal schedule and push the focus towards the individual.”
Hundley also has help from Rodgers, back in Green Bay after successful surgery to repair that collarbone. But will it be enough? The schedule, on paper, seems manageable. Winnable games against the Browns, Bears, and Buccaneers lie ahead until a potential Rodgers return Dec. 17 against Carolina.
Assuming losses to the Steelers and Ravens during that same stretch, this means the Lions game could make the postseason difference. A 7-6 Packers team, likely well behind Minnesota for the NFC North title would be difficult to recover from compared to 8-5.
The Lions, for their part would love that Packers tiebreaker in their bid to get to 4-4. Going to 2-0 versus NFC North opponents would give them victories against the two teams they’re competing against for the division. But can Stafford get the offense to score?
It’s a battle of which offense gets going first that’ll decide this crucial Monday night contest.
Detroit at Green Bay
Kickoff: Monday, Nov. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Lions -2.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Packers' run game help Hundley out?
Brett Hundley had an awful day in his first NFL start against the Saints. Throwing for just 87 yards, he went without a touchdown pass, threw a pick and earned a paltry QB rating of just 39.9.
But the Packers were still a threat to win that game due to the performance of rookie running back Aaron Jones. A career-best 131 rushing yards, his second such breakout in three weeks, kept New Orleans' defense on its toes. His 5.58 yards per carry ranks second in the NFL to Alex Collins.
Against a Lions defense that is sixth in the league against the run (91.6 ypg) this battle of the trenches has to be won by the Packers. Hundley has some scampering ability of his own, rushing for 44 yards and a score his last time out. Breaking through the Lions' front line will give this young quarterback the extra time needed to make some throws. An expected return of left guard Lane Taylor, who missed the Saints game with an ankle problem, can only help.
I’d also like to see better short passing plays drawn up from Green Bay this time out. Hundley’s longest completed pass was 14 yards against the Saints and it’s clear he’s not yet ready to go deep. The Packers own some speedy receivers in Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. Why not set up some more dinks and dunks around the line of scrimmage, letting these guys try to make the difference against the defense? Jones can be incredibly useful in that type of passing game, as well.
Bottom line, more offensive diversity is going to be needed with a team that took a step back at the QB position. We’ll see if the bye week allowed the Packers to take a much-needed move in that direction.
2. Can the Lions score in the red zone?
Matthew Stafford would be the first one to tell you the Lions' offense blew an opportunity to beat the Steelers. Three second-half possessions inside the 10-yard line produced a total of three points! That’s not how you’re going to win football games; the dreadful performance dropped Detroit’s red zone offense to 28th in the NFL.
The Lions piled up 482 yards in that game, third-most in NFL history without scoring a touchdown. Everyone from Stafford, to the run game, to Golden Tate (who lost a fumble) shares in that blame.
The Lions clearly have a talented offense, from Tate to Marvin Jones to Stafford, whose 1,851 passing yards ranks 12th in the league. But their struggling rushing attack hurts them most in the red zone. Whether it’s Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick or someone else, the Lions need to have “that guy” who will get them the 3-5 yards on the ground they need when it matters most.
3. Can the Packers' defense make a big play?
Green Bay's “D” has 13 takeaways so far this season, tied for seventh in the NFL. That’s produced a plus-four turnover margin, right in line with how Mike McCarthy’s team wins games. The Packers haven’t finished a season with a negative turnover margin since 2013.
That’s important considering the current state of the offense. Boosted by the likely return of veteran safety Morgan Burnett, the Packers need to keep Stafford on his heels and make some big plays. It can be done; this quarterback threw three interceptions just a few weeks ago against the Saints.
The Packers this year have just six picks, suffering through a rash of injuries in their secondary. That’s good for just 17th in the NFL with a unit that under Dom Capers has finished inside the top 10 in six of the last seven years in this category. At some point, you think they’d get going... right?
But perhaps the biggest “X” factor is Clay Matthews, the Packers' defensive star who already has a fumble forced and a fumble recovery his year. Consider Stafford has been sacked 25 times, tied for fourth most in the NFL. Putting pressure on him and their putrid running game (led by the disappointing Abdullah) can pay off.
The Packers' “D” needs to get it done on their home field.
You would think the Lions should take this game. But don’t discount the advantage Lambeau Field offers a Packers team already 3-1 at home. The Lions have won just once up here since 1992 (1-26 during that stretch) and the forecast for Monday is expected to be wintry-like. A high of just 39 degrees is expected and while there’s no snow, cold weather (even against a team based in Detroit) puts the Packers in their comfort zone.
Brett Hundley won’t be perfect. The offense will still be a work in progress. But it’ll be enough.
Prediction: Packers 21, Lions 19
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.