Nate: Last season, the Lions gave the Packers all they could handle in a 7-3 win. But many forget that Detroit's visit to Green Bay was also competitive, yielding a two-point loss. What is it about this matchup that allowed it to be so competitive last year, and do you feel it will carry onto Thursday?
Bill: Though there are some similarities – both offenses revolve around talented quarterbacks, for instance – these teams really couldn't be much different.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has an offensive background, and the Packers are built around Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has a defensive background, and the Lions are built with their defensive line. That was obviously evident in last year's game at Ford Field in Detroit, where the Lions' defensive line overwhelmed the Packers' front, which isn't the most physical bunch around.
That's a long-winded way of getting to the tried-and-true: The NFL is about the quarterback. The best quarterback wins, unless the quarterback is on his butt. The Lions did that in the two games last year, with their pressure being a major reason why Green Bay went a combined 5-of-19 on third down.
Nate: This will be Green Bay's third game in 11 days, and they're traveling. Is there a concern about a possible lag?
Bill: Not at all. This is the Lions' third game in 12 days, so what's the difference? It's the middle game that's the big challenge, which I think explains the Packers' up-and-down performance against Tampa Bay. I think it also explains the Lions' cold-then-hot performance against Carolina. Both teams are in the same boat for this game.
Neither team will be at its physical best and neither team got a full week to prepare. That puts the onus on the mental side of things to beat plays and looks that weren't seen over and over on the practice field. Will the battle-tested Packers be ready for the energy that the Lions will hit them with right off the bat? Will the Lions' defense be able to react to the Packers' extensive personnel packages and route combinations, and will the Lions' offense be able to handle the Packers' diverse pressure packages? Will older players like Charles Woodson and Jeff Backus be able to get by on veteran guile when they might not have their legs?
Nate: There's considerable talk regarding the Packers' march toward an undefeated season. If they have secured homefield advantage, do you anticipate McCarthy and Co. will go for the mark or rest their starters? What are the pros and cons of each, in your opinion?
Bill: I'd be stunned if McCarthy puts Rodgers and Co. on the sideline for the Week 16 home game against Chicago or the Week 17 home game against Detroit, especially if winning those games would keep the Bears and/or Lions home for the postseason. History matters here – more than most places. These kind of opportunities don't come along very often and McCarthy is rolling with a hot hand. Rodgers is at the height of his powers and enjoying a season unparalleled in NFL history. With Jermichael Finley heading toward free agency, this could be the last go-round for this electric group of skill players. Woodson, the heart and soul of the defense, can't play forever. The assistant coaching staff surely will be picked apart in the offseason. The Packers will be Super Bowl contenders for the next several years, but this clearly is their best chance to do something magical.
Very few teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls. No team has won a repeat championship by going undefeated. Still, we're getting way ahead of ourselves. The undefeated talk is a media creation. Nobody should be surprised if the Packers lose at Detroit on Thursday or at the New York Giants the following Sunday. Their pass rushes and quarterbacks are the perfect medicine to counter this Green Bay machine.
As for the pros and cons, with the first-round bye, what's the point of taking off Week 17, too? Other than the worst-case scenario of a key player going down in a game that doesn't mean a lot in the big picture.
Bill: Jennings' injury is a nonfactor. He'll be fine. Starks, on the other hand, is the wild card. Not only is he the leading rusher – a big, physical runner who dishes out as much punishment as he absorbs – but he's a major factor in the passing game. Moreover, this is a pass-first football team, and Starks is a superb checkdown receiver and plays most of the third downs because he's reliable in pass protection.
If Starks can't go or is limited, Ryan Grant – a 1,200-yard rusher in 2008 and 2009 before a season-ending ankle injury early last season – would be the primary ball-carrier and fullback John Kuhn would handle third-down duty. Kuhn is a terrific pass protector and good receiver, though he's certainly not the open-field threat that is Starks, who ranks 23rd in the league in yards after the catch.
Nate: If you're an opposing coach with Detroit's personnel, how do you attack Green Bay's offense? Conversely, where do you attack Green Bay's defense?
Bill: It's funny, I asked ESPN's Ron Jaworski how he'd stop Rodgers the other day. He gave me his game plan: Mix up pressure and coverage, zone and man, to keep Rodgers off-balance, and obviously apply plenty of pressure. Then, Jaworski added, all of that has been tried and none of it has worked. No clue how to attack Green Bay's offense besides the obvious: Pressure with the front four to such an extent that the back seven can keep the Packers' receivers in check. Clearly, the Lions have that capability. No secret there.
On the other side of the ball, the key is Kevin Smith. If the Lions can run the ball, they'll keep themselves in advantageous down-and-distance situations. If they can do that, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers won't be able to apply his extensive pressure packages. Green Bay's secondary has given up a ton of plays this season – an ugly history that probably will repeat itself if Matthew Stafford is given a steady diet of second-and-6 and third-and-2.