As important as these games are with the Packers fighting the Chicago Bears for the NFC North championship and chasing the San Francisco 49ers for a first-round bye, the Packers' chances of reaching the Super Bowl are infinitely better with a healthy Matthews in the lineup in the playoffs – even if that means having to get there without a bye and without the benefit of a home playoff game.
That said, the pass rush has evaporated in Matthews' absence, which is a troubling note with Matthew Stafford and the pass-happy Lions coming to town for a Sunday night matchup.
Green Bay was fighting for the league's sacks title and in position to set a team record until Matthews went down against Arizona before the bye. In the first game with Matthews sidelined, the Packers dropped Stafford five times. That's their second-best total of the season, and their 10 quarterbacks hits ties for their fourth-most of the year. Three of the sacks and eight of the quarterback hits came from the outside linebackers.
In the last two games, the Packers have one sack and eight quarterback hits, with the sack and four hits coming from the outside linebackers. Matthews had at least one sack and four hits by himself in five of his nine games.
"You know, these games have been a little bit different," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday when asked about the outside linebackers. "Last week, when you've got (Adrian) Peterson sitting back there, you're not doing a lot of pass-rush stuff. You're concerned about we've got to stop the run, first of all. You go back to the last Lions game, I thought we had really good production out of our outside linebackers. The Giants game, I don't know that we got good production out of anybody that night. We just didn't make many plays. This last game, it was a hell of a lot more emphasis on the run because we knew what Peterson could do. It wasn't one of those games where you were going to pin your ears back and rush the passer."
Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said the coaches have been "turning up the tempo on everybody" on defense, not just his position group. Still, he acknowledges his group must do more. Erik Walden had 2.5 sacks and 12 hits in a five-game stretch but no sacks and four hits in the last three games. Dezman Moses had a sack, strip and four hits against Detroit; he's got one hit in the last two games.
"You can always play better," Greene said. "We can always improve our technique and fundamentals. We are playmakers. Clay isn't the only playmaker in the room. When we don't make those plays that we want to make, we strive to make those plays. Yeah, we want more and we demand more."
One-man receiving corps
Jerry Rice is known as GOAT – Greatest of all Time. Rice's greatest season came in 1995, when he set a league record with 1,848 receiving yards.
Calvin Johnson is known as Megatron, and he's got a chance to best Rice's best season. With 1,428 receiving yards in 12 games, Johnson is on pace for 1,904 yards. Johnson has at least 125 receiving yards in each of his last five games, which has tied a league mark. In his last 16 regular-season games, which includes his 244-yard onslaught at Lambeau last year, he's hauled in a stunning 2,017 yards of receptions.
"He's doing a heck of a job," Stafford said in a conference call on Wednesday. "I think (offensive coordinator Scott) Linehan deserves a lot of credit, finding ways to get him open, getting him in favorable matchups and then letting him do his thing. It's just fun to be a part of."
The Lions will need Johnson more than ever on Sunday. With Titus Young (33 catches in 10 games) Nate Burleson (27 catches in six games) and Ryan Broyles (22 catches in 10 games) on injured reserve, the Lions have 82 receptions and eight touchdown out of the lineup. Those are comparable numbers to Johnson (86 receptions, five touchdowns), and a far cry from the not-so-dynamic trio of Mike Thomas (three catches), Kris Durham (zero) and Kassim Osgood (zero).
"We've got three days of practice before the game and it's my job and their job to get comfortable with each other and go out there and play," Stafford said.
Green's second chance
When Cedric Benson sustained what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury against Indianapolis, Green burst onto the scene with 63 yards on 10 rushes, including a 41-yard dash in which he showed his open-field ability.
It was a promising start, though it quickly fizzled. Green got 20-plus carries in each of the next three games but mustered only 154 yards and 2.4 yards per attempt.
That lack of production opened the door for James Starks, and in a backfield timeshare, Green's numbers improved. Even while not getting a carry at Detroit, Green rushed for 141 yards the last four weeks. His average in those games surged to 4.3 yards per attempt.
Starks is out indefinitely with a knee injury and the Packers plan to ease Grant back into action after getting just one carry this season. So, for at least one week, Green will be the No. 1 guy. He says he's better prepared this time.
"Just going through what I went through before, it was a great experience – something new, something different," Green said. "Now, to get a second opportunity to showcase what I can do, I'm ready for the challenge and ready to step up."
With a tandem of Starks and Green, the Packers appeared to have found a productive one-two punch. Now, the Packers are sort of starting over in the backfield, just like they did when they added Cedric Benson and then when they lost Benson.
"Alex seems to run best when he is mixed in," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "You look at statistically when he is sharing reps, his run average is a lot higher. He's fresher. Those are things we'll keep in mind. We've got to monitor where we are with Alex. If we feel like he needs a blow for a drive or maybe a couple plays, then Ryan will be the next guy up."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy likes to say his game plan is so diversified that he could play a doubleheader.
Game 2 of a doubleheader against Detroit will be played on Sunday, 21 days from the Packers' 24-20 win at Ford Field. That means, rather than in-depth study of the last month's worth of games and going back deeper to see how the Lions attacked teams that run similar concepts and schemes, the emphasis was on the teams' Nov. 18 matchup and Detroit's games against Houston on Thanksgiving and Indianapolis last week.
"You still study the film but you have a pretty good recall of the film you've already studied, plus you have a few extra games to look at, plus you've played them once already, so you kind of have an idea (of how they'll play you)," Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "You see what's successful or unsuccessful and try to make sure correct the unsuccessful things and change around the successful things."
For the Lions, the emphasis was on Green Bay's games against the Giants and Vikings. With fewer games to look at, the teams could do a little extra self-scouting and in-depth analysis.
"It's a little bit different this week because, generally, you're watching 10 games or 12 games and you're trying to look at everything a team has done over the course of a season," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said in his Wednesday conference call. "Really, we're only looking at two this week – the two they've played since us. We obviously evaluate our game when the game's over. The Giants and Minnesota games were the only games that have been played since then. The two teams played a very tough, close game the first time. They are teams that are very familiar with each other. There's not a whole lot of surprises when it comes to scheme, game plan, talent on the field, the way they use players. Both of these teams know each other very well."
The other sideline
— Detroit's offensive line has done a solid job. The Lions are seventh in opponent sack percentage, with 25 sacks in 547 passing attempts equating to a rate of 4.4 percent. Plus, they've allowed the second-fewest tackles for losses on running plays with 28. In all, the Lions have lost yardage on a league-low 6.7 percent of their offensive snaps.
Experience is key. The Lions' starting five has combined for 548 starts, led by left tackle Jeff Backus' 186 and center Dominic Raiola's 167. Not only is that the most experienced unit in the NFL — Atlanta is a distant second with 451 — but the rest of the NFC North has combined for 498 starts.
— Over the last two seasons, Johnson leads the NFL with 3,109 receiving yards and 34 receptions of 25-plus yards, is second with 182 receptions, and is tied with Jordy Nelson for second with 21 touchdown catches. He leads Wes Welker by 476 yards and A.J. Green by eight receptions of 25-plus yards.
— The Lions, despite a pass-happy attack and 21st-ranked rushing offense, are tied for third in the league with 14 rushing touchdowns. That's their most since finishing with 15 in 2000. Mikel Leshoure has seven of the game despite being suspended for the first two games of the season.
— It's another big challenge for Green Bay's offensive line. The Lions' front four ranks fifth in sacks with 25, second in tackles for losses on running plays with 26.5 and first in negative-yardage plays with 51.5. The quartet of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Corey Williams and Sammie Hill give the Lions' defensive tackles league highs of 12 sacks and 18 tackles for losses.
— The Packers own an NFL-record 21-game home winning streak against the Lions. Stafford is 0-1 at Lambeau, despite last year's 520-yard, five-touchdown performance. He was 3 when Erik Kramer beat the Packers in Green Bay in 1991. Not even 42-year-old kicker Jason Hanson was on the team for that game. The Packers' streak is pretty amazing, but maybe not quite as amazing as Washington's current 18-game winning streak against the Lions. That started in 1939.
"It's one of those things, we've been able to squeak out some victories," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It hasn't all been pretty, I know that, as far as the four I've been a part of. They've been close. We won a couple games late, obviously last year Matt played incredible to get that win at the end of the season. It's always really competitive games and for whatever reason we've come out on the right side of the last 20, or so."
— Green Bay has won 10 in a row against division opponents, the longest streak in the league. New England has won nine in a row against the NFC East. Denver and Houston are tied for third with merely four consecutive division wins.
— Rodgers is chasing history. He's thrown a touchdown pass in 35 consecutive home games. Dan Marino holds the NFL record with a 39-game run from 1983 through 1988. Rodgers snapped a second-place tie with Johnny Unitas last week.
— The last time Grant laced up his cleats for a regular-season game at Lambeau Field, the veteran running back showed he's still got some wheels. Among the many big plays in last year's finale against the Lions, Grant had a career-long 80-yard touchdown catch. In eight career games against Detroit, Grant has two 100-yard rushing games and five games of 100-plus scrimmage yards.
— 2: When the Packers allow two-plus touchdown passes, they're 1-4, with the only victory coming over New Orleans. In their losses to San Francisco, Seattle, Indianapolis and the Giants, the Packers allowed nine touchdown passes and recorded only one interception. In their eight wins, they've allowed five touchdowns and picked off 13 passes.
— 8: Quarterback hits, by the Packers' count, tallied by the defense over the last two weeks. The Packers had at least that many in eight of the first 10 games.
— 14.3: The Packers are one of the NFL's best teams in the red zone over the course of the season with an eighth-ranked 59.4 percent touchdowns, but that's not true over the last four games. The Packers have scored touchdowns on 1-of-7 treks inside the 20, a pitiful 14.3 percent. Detroit's red-zone defense is tied for ninth at 50 percent.
— 1,900: Combined yards this season for Randall Cobb, which puts him on pace for 2,533 for a 16-game season. That would obliterate Ahman Green's team record of 2,250, set in 2003. Darren Sproles set the NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards last season. Cobb's projected total would be the fifth-most in NFL history.
— Under McCarthy, the Packers have been in the top 10 in offense every season, based on the league's usage of yards as the measuring stick. This season, Green Bay is 16th. It hasn't been better than 14th at any point this year.
— Turnovers are critical, obviously, but what matters just as much is what happens afterward. Green Bay has scored just 29 points off of 18 takeaways this season. Detroit's offense isn't a whole lot better, with 26 points off of 15 takeaways. On the other side of the ball, opponents have scored 55 points off of the Packers' 12 giveaways. The Lions' foes have had a much tougher time, scoring 43 points off of Detroit's 20 giveaways.
— The Lions are 10-0 when Stafford has a passer rating of at least 105. Rodgers is 25-0 with a rating of at least 115 and 34-4 when matched with Stafford's threshold of 105.
— Never mind a block party. How about a drop party: Detroit has a league-high 36 dropped passes. Green Bay is No. 2 in the NFC and No. 5 overall with 28 drops.
Quote of the week
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story ...
McCarthy, on the injuries: "Self-pity is a waste of time, it's a wasted emotion. Frankly, I think it's a part of the National Football League. I don't think we've created any secret formula on how we go about it. We just stay focused on what's in front of us and you have to, especially these division games. They're so important."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.