Detroit Lions (4-8) at Green Bay Packers (2-10)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 145th meeting between the Lions and Packers, although the two teams played another six games before the Lions moved from Portsmouth, Ohio, to Detroit in 1934. The Packers lead the series 76-62-6. The Lions beat Green Bay 17-3 in the season opener this year. It was only their second win in the past 10 games between the rivals.
2005 RANKINGS: Lions: offense 27th (25th rush, 26th pass); defense 15th (25th rush, 13th pass). Packers: offense 19th (30th rush, 8th pass); defense 8th (26th rush, 1st pass)
PREDICTION: Packers 19-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Brett Favre has been admittedly hesitant to trust his ever-changing group of receivers outside of dependable WR Donald Driver. His 75.9 passer rating is below his career-worst season of 74.7 in 1999 because of poor decision-making and too often playing from far behind. It's imperative for RB Samkon Gado to provide a running threat, but it won't be easy with Lions DTs Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson anchoring the middle. The Lions also want to establish their running game, and RB Kevin Jones is expected to return after missing last Sunday's game. With Detroit's offensive line struggling in pass protection, the Lions need Jones to be effective on early downs to avoid putting QB Jeff Garcia in long passing situations. The Packers have quietly risen to the top of the league in pass defense, but their secondary hasn't been tested much in recent weeks.
FAST FACTS: Lions: Seek first season sweep in series since 1991. ... Interim coach Dick Jauron was Green Bay's defensive backs coach from 1986-94. Packers: Favre needs nine passing yards to extend his NFL record of consecutive seasons with at least 3,000 passing yards to 14. ... Favre will play his 100th game at Lambeau Field. ... Gado needs one rushing touchdown to set a new rookie franchise record of six.
--QB Jeff Garcia is healthier and has had another full week of practice since suffering leg injuries in the Lions' Oct. 30 game against Chicago, so Lions interim coach Dick Jauron says he expects an improved performance in the Sunday night game at Green Bay. Garcia had a 45.7 passer rating in the 21-16 loss to Minnesota last Sunday.
--RB Kevin Jones, who has had more than 20 carries in a game only three times all season, might be in line for a heavier workload in the Lions' game Sunday night at Green Bay. Jones is close to fully recovered from a quadriceps injury and interim coach Dick Jauron has indicated an interest in running the ball more than the Lions have run it in earlier games this season.
--PR/KOR Eddie Drummond was added to the Lions' injury report on Thursday because of a tender knee that has given him trouble earlier this season. Drummond was listed as questionable after getting little work in the Thursday practice.
--SS Kenoy Kennedy has not been the high-impact performer the Lions might have anticipated when they signed him as a free agent last spring, but he has been a steady performer nevertheless. Kennedy leads all Lions defenders with 97 tackles and has two interceptions, seven passes defensed and a forced fumble.
--CB Dre' Bly seems to be the catalyst of the Lions secondary. The Lions had 10 interceptions in the first five games, including five by Bly. In the seven games since then, however, the team has had just four interceptions and none by Bly, who missed four games after having surgery to repair a wrist injury and is playing now with his hand in a cast.
--QB Brett Favre practiced Thursday after being held out a day because of a lacerated right hand and bruised right forearm, injuries sustained in the 19-7 loss at Chicago last Sunday. Favre is probable to play Sunday against Detroit.
--TE Bubba Franks didn't practice for the second straight day and isn't expected to play Sunday. He is listed as doubtful on the injury report after re-injuring his neck and back in the last game. David Martin would start in Franks' place, backed up by Donald Lee.
--WR Antonio Chatman returned to practice. The No. 3 receiver and punt returner was kept out of Wednesday's practice after he felt woozy during a special-teams workout. Chatman took a hit to the head during the last game. He isn't on the injury report.
--NT Grady Jackson, who suffered a strained hip in the last game, practiced after missing a day. He's probable for Sunday.
--OLB Robert Thomas didn't practice for the second straight day and is unlikely to play Sunday after he aggravated a strained quadriceps in the last game. Thomas remains questionable on the injury report.
Either Paris Lenon or rookie Roy Manning would replace Thomas at the weakside position. They have split the snaps with the first-string defense the past two days. Lenon is trying to play with a cast on a broken right index finger, sustained in the last game.
--OLB Na'il Diggs, who's questionable because of sore knees, again was relegated to mostly scout-team duties in practice. Rookie Brady Poppinga handled the bulk of the reps with the first group and is in line to make his first pro start.
--RT Mark Tauscher, probable on the injury report with a strained arch he aggravated in the last game, practiced again and is expected to man his starting post Sunday.
--DT Corey Williams practiced for the second straight day, though he remains questionable for Sunday. The backup hasn't played in a game since he tore a calf muscle Nov. 6.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
With just four games remaining on the schedule, it seems the Lions might finally be ready to launch their running game.
Running back Kevin Jones is healthy after missing one complete game and part of another with a quadriceps injury.
The weather and field conditions for their game Sunday night at Green Bay deem it only sensible that they attempt to run the ball instead of relying entirely on the passing game. And interim coach Dick Jauron seems more inclined to stick with the running game than was his predecessor, Steve Mariucci.
The Lions expected big things from their running game going into the 2005 season but it has been a major disappointment, from the poor run blocking by the offensive line to the lack of creativity from the running backs to the lack of commitment from the coaching staff.
Twelve games into the season, the Lions rank 25th in the NFL in rushing offense. They are averaging 92.3 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Their best rushing game of the season was 169 yards in a 35-17 victory over Baltimore in early October, and the best effort by an individual back was 87 yards by Jones in the season opener against Green Bay.
Jones, who piled up 1,133 yards as a rookie last year, is the leading rusher with 523 yards in 159 rushing attempts, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. He has scored five rushing touchdowns.
After sitting out the Minnesota game, however, Jones is rested and at least healthy enough to practice and avoid this week's injury report. He says he expects to play at Green Bay, and if Jauron carries through on his comment a week ago to give him 20-30 carries, he will get plenty of work.
"He's a lot better than last week," Jauron said. "He looks like he's much more comfortable running on it, cutting on it, getting the full range of motion, so I'd say he's significantly better than he was a week ago."
Al Harris isn't one to toot his own horn, so he isn't working himself up over possibly being voted into the Pro Bowl in a couple weeks.
On the other hand, those associated with the eighth-year cornerback and, perhaps more important, a number of those outside the Packers organization, are in accord about touting Harris for his first trip to the all-star game in Hawaii.
"I think he's the best DB (defensive back) in the league," Detroit receiver Roy Williams said this week.
Earlier this season, when Cincinnati was getting ready to play the Packers, loquacious and ever-so-critical receiver Chad Johnson trumpeted Harris as the league's second-best cornerback, behind only Denver's Champ Bailey.
"I don't even want to think where we'd be without him. That's how valuable he is to us," said Packers cornerbacks coach Lionel Washington, who excelled in his own right as a defensive back for 15 years in the NFL.
Regarded by defensive coordinator Jim Bates as the "most consistent" performer of the unit this season, Harris has been a catalyst in the Packers' remarkable rise to the No. 1 ranking in the league for pass defense. They're yielding an average of only 167.6 yards per game. Last year, the Packers ranked 25th, surrendering an average of 228.9 yards.
"With what he's given our football team, without a doubt he merits consideration" for the Pro Bowl, Bates said.
Harris will have to count on a lot of favorable sentiment being circulated by word of mouth to earn the elusive nod, because the statistics aren't necessarily in his favor.
He has only two interceptions - both in Green Bay's 52-3 rout of New Orleans in Week 5. Harris also has broken up just 14 passes, half of his career-high total from last season. Also working against Harris is the fact he plays on a 2-10 team.
Still, he's the Packers' best and probably lone hope to get to Honolulu in February because he's altered the game plan of just about every opponent they've played this season.
"He presses you all game," Williams raved. "All the other ones, like (Lions teammate) Dre' Bly and all the other big-time guys, they want to play off and read the quarterback. He just presses on you and mans up. I always look at him as the biggest challenge of the year."
Williams will get a second chance at running against Harris when the Packers host Detroit on Sunday night. In the Lions' season-opening win Sept. 11, Harris covered Williams the entire game and held the young standout to two catches for 13 yards.
Although it's one of the few times Harris has been exclusively assigned to the opponent's top receiver this season, his presence on the field has had a profound impact.
New Orleans' Az-Zahir Hakim is the only player to have a 100-yard receiving game against the Packers, and he was primarily defended by Ahmad Carroll. In that game, Harris blanketed Donte Stallworth, holding him to one catch, and returned one of the interceptions for a touchdown.
"It's a matter of not giving up those big plays - guys who aren't scoring on you or not getting a ton of balls," Harris said Thursday.
He hasn't allowed a touchdown through the first 12 games. Of late, teams have purposely been throwing away from Harris. Only five of his pass breakups have come in the last seven games, after he had nine in the first five contests.
Chicago threw only four passes in Harris' direction last Sunday - all to Muhsin Muhammad, who didn't have a reception the entire game. The unusual flurry of activity prompted Harris to remark, "The most work I got since the Saints game."
"Al Harris is having a great year," Bates said. "Any way you want to cut it, we've put him on some tough responsibilities - (Carolina's) Steve Smith, Muhammad last week. He's had a great year. Sometimes, you don't realize it because of the numbers, since he only has two interceptions.
"But, when you look at what he has done through 12 games, that is a quality, quality year."
Saying he's having his "best year, by far," Harris' season to date is all the more noteworthy because the coaches have relied on him to move inside on passing downs and cover the slot receiver. His efforts there have been beyond reproach.
"A lot of guys can't leave their comfort zone, and he did," Washington said. "That says a lot about the type of person he is, the type of character he has."