World’s Best Preview: Who Wins a Close Game?

That might wind up being the division-deciding question, since both teams have been superb in close games this season. Plus, Detroit's historically dominant run defense, Green Bay's struggles against dominant defenses, Detroit's surprisingly impotent offense and much, much more in a preview that crushes the competition with its sheer heft. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions in a game that will decide the NFC North championship and which team earns a coveted first-round bye.

Both teams are 11-4, which would foretell a close game. So, too, would the recent series history. Other than last year’s 40-10 Thanksgiving massacre at Ford Field, the other eight games since the start of the 2010 season have been determined by an average of 7.0 points.

So, who has the edge in a close game?

Both teams should feel good about their chances.

In games decided by seven points or less, Detroit is 6-1 – including wins over Minnesota and Chicago the last two weeks. Green Bay is 5-0, including back-to-back wins over New England and Atlanta in their last two home games.

Winning close games is an art akin to catching a fly with a pair of chopsticks. In 2010, for instance, all six of the Packers’ losses came by seven points or less. This season, however, they’ve rallied past the Jets, won on a late touchdown at Miami, ran out the clock at Minnesota and made a crucial stand to hold off New England. Their only late failure was at Buffalo, 21-13.

“I think you have daily opportunities to build confidence,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it’s important to not only continue to create those opportunities, but it’s to stack the success of the confidence builders. Whether it’s something that happens in practice, anytime you see growth in a unit, a position, a player, you just keep stacking that success and it’s something that continues to grow. When you have big moments, win five close games or so in a row, you tap into that. It’s all about stacking success and building confidence.”

That’s been the formula in Detroit, as well. In 2013, the Lions went 3-6 in games decided by seven points or less, with their final three games ending in losses by a combined total of six points. That, ultimately, cost Jim Schwartz his job as coach. Under new coach Jim Caldwell, five of the Lions’ last seven wins have come by a combined 14 points, with the only late-game failures coming against Buffalo (17-14) and Arizona (14-6).

“I think it’s fundamentals,” Caldwell said in a conference call this week. “You practice it, you talk about the situations, you educate along with training. There’s a difference between training and educating, so guys understand exactly what the situation is. We do a lot of work in that phase. Every, single day we work on situational football and then we highlight a particular situation after every single practice. I think through that kind of work, we’ve developed the ability to at least understand what we have to get done and how to go about doing it.”

Detroit has a tremendous late-game quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Stafford has led 17 career game-winning drives when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. Six of those winning scores have come with less than 1 minute remaining in the fourth quarter. He’s led five game-winning drives this season, including each of the past two weeks. Like Rodgers, Stafford was incredibly clutch against Miami, with an 11-yard touchdown pass to running back Theo Riddick with 29 seconds to play to cap a 74-yard drive on Nov. 9. Against Atlanta in London on Oct. 26, Stafford finished off a comeback from a 21-point deficit with a field-goal drive as time expired.

Remarkably, his four career game-winning touchdown passes in final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter are tied for first in NFL history. Stafford has played 76 career games. Compare that to the list of guys he’s tied with: Brett Favre (302 games), Tom Brady (202), Drew Bledsoe (194), Joe Ferguson (186) Steve Bartkowski (129) and Tommy Kramer (129).

“I think, No. 1, belief in our team,” Stafford said in a conference call this week. “We believe in each other. On offense, I know we believe our defense will get a stop. On defense, I know they think every time we get the ball in the fourth quarter we’re going to go put points up. It’s been a recipe or success. Also, just playing aggressive. In those instances, like Atlanta in London, we were down 21 at half and not being afraid to make mistakes, not being afraid on my part to be aggressive with the football. Those big plays have brought us back.”

RUNNING INTO A WALL

What will be McCarthy’s offensive approach against the Lions?

Will he stick with what has been one of the league’s most productive running games? Or will he take one look at Detroit’s defense, which features one of the best run defenses in NFL history, and think his best bet is to put the ball in No. 12’s hands and start chucking it all over Lambeau Field?

When it comes to running Eddie Lacy and Friends at Ndamukong Suh and Co., it’s the immovable object against the irresistible force.

In one corner, it’s Green Bay’s powerhouse running game, which is averaging 140.7 rushing yards over the past seven games. In the other corner, it’s Detroit’s run defense, which enters Sunday’s game allowing a league-low 63.8 rushing yards per game. That not only leads the NFL but it ranks as the sixth-best of all-time.

The Jets rushed for 132 yards on 27 attempts for a 4.9-yard average against Detroit in Week 4. Since then, the Lions are yielding just 57.6 rushing yards per game, haven’t allowed more than 90 rushing yards in a game and have yielded 50 or less five times. Other than the Jets and the Patriots, who averaged 4.5 yards per rush in Week 12, no team has averaged more than 3.8 per carry against the Lions all season. (The Packers averaged 3.5 in Week 3.) Eight times, teams failed to even average 3.0 per carry. Three times in the last six games, the opponent couldn’t even reach a meager 2.0 yards per carry.

Is it just talent?

“It’s never that simple,” Caldwell said. “I do think that Teryl Austin, who’s our defensive coordinator, does an exceptional job of putting together game plans, along with the rest of the defensive coaching staff. There’s a lot of veterans on that staff who do a great job of communicating what they want to get done and how they want to go about it. And then you couple that with the fact that we do have some talent there. Obviously, a Pro Bowler in Ndamukong Suh, who’s been just an outstanding player through the years. (Linebacker DeAndre) Levy’s playing outstanding. We have some other guys up front – Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones and the rest of the group that roll in there. We can roll through a lot of guys and they do a great job. Any time that you’re slowing down the run, most people think that it has only to do with your front seven, but guys in your perimeter come up and support, as well. I just think overall the guys have done a great job implementing, I think the players have done a great job embracing it quickly. And, obviously, we have talent to work with.”

Green Bay feels good about the growth of its run game since getting stymied at Detroit in Week 3. That phase of the offense, not surprisingly, struggled in the first three games of the season. Remember, rookie Corey Linsley had been thrown into the fire at center. Moreover, veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the second half of 2012 and all of 2013 with injuries, was hurt in the opener at Seattle and missed the next game against the Jets. With that as a backdrop, it’s little wonder why Green Bay struggled running the ball against the Seahawks, Jets and Lions – who rank second, third and first, respectively, in yards allowed per carry.

While the Packers haven’t faced a run defense nearly as good as those three teams since, they did blow through Philadelphia (No. 6 in yards allowed per carry), Tampa Bay (No. 9), New England (No. 12), Buffalo (No. 13) and Atlanta (No. 14) during the second half of the season. So, it’s not as if Green Bay’s rushing production has been accomplished against Paper Mache University.

“We’re extremely confident. We’re always more confident at home for sure, so that’s a big thing for us,” Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton said. “We didn’t have an identity Week 3. It always seems to take us awhile to get going and figure out who we are. Some teams come out right away and have their identity. It always takes us longer. We know who we are now and we feel confident.”

OFFENSIVE FIREWORKS OR FIZZLE?

The Packers have been almost unstoppable offensively at home with their 41.1 points per game.

However, will that home cooking mean anything against Detroit’s second-ranked scoring defense?

Here’s the disconcerting story of the season: In three games against teams that rank in the top five in scoring defense, the Packers lost 36-16 at Seattle, 19-7 at Detroit and 21-13 at Buffalo. Green Bay scored 36 points in those games, or just 12.0 per game, against defenses that are allowing 16.5, 16.8 and 18.7 per game, respectively. In other words, while it’s no surprise that excellent defenses – playing at home -- have slowed Green Bay’s scoring pace, it’s noteworthy that the Packers have scored fewer points in those games than those teams have allowed this season.

Moreover, the Packers have scored only 33 points the past two games. That’s been a good first half at times this season. Receiver Jordy Nelson, however, said the offense hasn’t lost its momentum after scoring at least 38 points six times in the prior 10 games.

“Well, I think if you look at last week, we were very productive,” Nelson said. “We had two guys over 100 yards receiving and (just missed) a 100-yard rusher. We just didn’t have many drives in the second half. We sustained drives, which is great. A couple of opportunities where we could have had touchdowns and it would have been a different game. I think we’re confident in what we can do and what we’ve been doing.”

Detroit is dominant in just about every area defensively. By stopping the run and forcing a steady diet of third-and-longs, the Lions rank second with 20 interceptions, second with a combined 61 sacks and interceptions, fifth with an opponent passer rating of 80.2, first with 109 quarterback hits and fourth with a third-down conversion rate of 35.6 percent.

“It’s a stout run defense. Teams have been trying to pass on them, but that hasn’t worked too well, either,” Rodgers said. “There’s a reason they’re at the top with the yards per rush, yards per game given up on the ground and yards per game overall. It’s a great defense. You just have to be very efficient against them and convert third down and convert in the red zone.”

The other sideline

— Caldwell’s first season has been a rousing success.

Caldwell is the 24th head coach in Lions history. His 11 wins is tied for tops among first-year coaches in franchise history. The other? Potsy Clark, who led the Portsmouth Spartans to an 11-3 record in 1931. In fact, the Lions have 11 wins for only the fourth time ever.

For Caldwell, this wasn’t a rebuilding job.

“You know, I always make this statement: I have patience but I don’t have a whole lot of time,” Caldwell said. “When I first came, even before I had a chance to talk to any players, we came here to win and not to wait. It wasn’t going to be a three-year process. We said right now. I think we came in with that attitude and I think our coaches and players accepted that and went about the task of trying to get that done.”

With a wealth of high-profile talent onboard, it was about instilling discipline. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer penalty flags; Detroit has been penalized 108 times this season vs. 110 last season. It does mean taking care of the football. Detroit is plus-6 in turnovers this season compared to minus-12 last season. Stafford has cut his interceptions from 19 to 12, and the Lions have reduced their fumbles from 28 (15 lost) to 19 (seven lost).

“The thing that I notice is they find a way to win games,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think they’ve got a philosophy and they play to that philosophy. It starts with their defense. They normally don’t give up a lot. They don’t make the big mistake on offense. You look at the number of close games that they’ve won, I think it ties into what their overall philosophy is. You don’t win 11 games unless you’re talented and you’re doing something right. I think they play that way. They’ve got the ability to beat you on any one big play and they’ve got a lot of different ways they can do that.”

— Suh leads the NFL’s most ferocious defensive line. Among defensive tackles, his 8.5 sacks rank second in the NFL and are his most since 2010, and his 20 tackles for losses lead the league and are a career high.

“He’s just a complete player,” guard T.J. Lang said. “He’s a physical guy, very athletic guy and he plays very hard, plays aggressive and plays to the whistle, and he doesn’t really take a lot of plays off. If he’s in there, it’s a battle from whistle to whistle, from snap to the whistle. He’s definitely a guy where you have to be aware of he is on the field at all times.”

Nine defensive linemen have contributed at least a half-sack, with Ansah (7.5) ranking second on the team and George Johnson (6.0) third as that unit has provided 31 of the team’s 41 sacks. Plus, that unit ranks fourth in the league with 24 tackles for losses on running plays to give it a total of 57 total negative-yardage plays, a figure that ranks second among defensive lines.

— For all of the big-name firepower, Detroit’s offense surprisingly hasn’t been very good. The Lions are 23rd in scoring with 20.1 points per game (compared to 24.7 last season) and 18th in offense with 342.6 yards per game. While the turnovers have been reigned in, Detroit ranks 20th in the red zone (51.1 percent) and third down (38.7 percent).

“I think every week has been different for us,” Stafford said. “Last week, I thought we moved the ball great and I had two bad turnovers. We didn’t convert in the red zone. That’s been something we have to get better at and continue to get better at. That’s something where you play a good offense like Green Bay, you want to score touchdowns every time you go down there. You don’t want to kick field goals.”

With Stafford, receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, and running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, the Packers know the Lions have the potential to bust loose at any moment.

“I think that, No. 1, they’ve kind of been smart in the way they play,” Capers said. “You win 11 games, you’re doing something right. They know they have a strong defense that doesn’t give up a lot. One of the things that I look at is they’re turning the ball over far less now than what they have in the past. I think they’ve only had 19 giveaways. They’ve got the ability to run the ball. They’ve got some good running backs. Bell’s a very physical runner and all you have to do is watch him and you see people bounce off of him. After the first contact, he’ll make the extra 2, 3 yards. When Reggie Bush comes in, he’s a matchup guy and a very good screen runner. Now, they’ve added Golden Tate, who’s a very good complement to Calvin Johnson. You start paying too much attention to Calvin Johnson, they can beat you with Golden Tate. He’s really good with the ball in his hands after the catch and he’s a physical player for a guy his size.”

— Stafford’s piled up some big numbers in his career. With 4,040 passing yards this season, he’s gone over 4,000 yards four times since being the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft. Peyton Manning (five times) and Dan Marino (four) are the only other quarterbacks to achieve that feat four times in their first six seasons. When he reached 20,000 career yards against Arizona in November, he became the fastest quarterback to hit that milestone. It took Stafford just 71 games, beating Marino’s mark of 74 games.

Caldwell, who worked with Manning in Indianapolis and Joe Flacco in Baltimore during their Super Bowl MVP seasons, thinks he’s got the quarterback to lead the Lions to bigger and better things.

“You know, one of the things I think that (happens), often times people are looking to put labels on the quarterback position,” Caldwell said. “They want to know, ‘Do you think he’s elite?’ or do you think he’s this or that. Everybody’s sort of got their own tags that they like to talk about. What we talked about from the time we’ve been here is, the most important thing is winning. And we don’t worry about those kinds of tags, because I don’t think anybody would have described Brad Johnson as an elite quarterback, but yet he has a Super Bowl ring. I don’t think anybody would have described Joe Flacco -- and did not (describe him) -- as an elite quarterback, but he has a Super Bowl ring. And Russell Wilson, prior to his run right now and before that, no one described him as an elite quarterback, but he’s a Super Bowl champion. And we’re more interested in winning than anything else. And I think Matthew has taken that to heart. Matthew understands how to win games and, obviously, I think he’s getting better and better and better every day.”

History lessons

— Maybe you’ve heard: The Lions haven’t won in Wisconsin since 1991. That 23-game streak is the longest in NFL history, and it encompasses eight Lions coaches and 13 quarterbacks starting in those games.

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t here. I’m not sure,” Caldwell said, no doubt voicing the line he gave to his players about a streak that started before some of them were born. “I typically don’t try to talk about things that I don’t know anything about. I have no idea. I know nothing about that. All I know is we have a game coming up this weekend against a very difficult team in a very, very tough place to play. The history, you don’t ignore it and act like it doesn’t exist because that’s what you guys do – you guys fire all of those things out – but they really don’t matter to us. We take every game as they come. If we go in and do our job, obviously, it’ll be a battle either way. If we don’t do our job, it won’t be as tough. Our job is to do our job and not worry about whatever the history and streaks and things of that nature.”

The Packers have a plus-20 turnover margin in those games. Frequently, they were blowouts, but Green Bay’s last four wins have come by a combined 26 points.

“For a while, the Lions were just a bad football team, so we just knew we were going to beat that. That’s not the case anymore,” Sitton said. “They’re an extremely talented football team and, I think with Jim Caldwell over there, they’re a more disciplined team and a really good football team. And we know it’s going to be a tough challenge. We’ve just had their number. Does it mean anything this week? No, it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to go do what we do.”

— Caldwell leads the Lions into Sunday’s game with an 11-4 record. He also led the Colts to a 14-2 record in 2009, so he’s established himself as one of the league’s top coaches.

“Jim's an excellent coach,” McCarthy said. “Very consistent and I think his teams play that way. I think he's done a very good job, particularly if you look at the number of games they've won, close games. Excellent offensive mind and he's doing a heck of a job.”

— Johnson has five career games of 200 receiving yards. That’s tied with Hall of Famer Alworth for most in the pro football history. Packers legend Don Hutson, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and AFL great Charlie Hennigan are next with four apiece. Also, Johnson has 550 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his last five trips to Lambeau Field. He has 1,245 yards in his career against the Packers. Since 1960, according to STATS, only Randy Moss (1,320) and Cris Carter (1,314) have more.

— Under McCarthy, the Packers are 7-1 in regular-season finales. If the Packers can win on Sunday, it would be McCarthy’s 100th career victory (including playoffs) and 94th in the regular season. Last week, he broke a tie with Bill Walsh for the 43rd-most career regular-season wins.

Noteworthy numbers

— Lions safety Glover Quin leads the NFL with seven interceptions. A Lions defender hasn’t led the NFL in interceptions since Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney (10) in 1967. Fellow safety James Ihedigbo, a key free agent that Caldwell brought from Baltimore, has added four interceptions. That gives Detroit’s starting combination 11 picks; that’s four more than any other team’s safety tandem.

With those two leading the charge, the Lions have intercepted a pass in 12 consecutive games. That’s the longest current streak in NFL history. Of course, they’ll be challenged to extend that streak on Sunday, with Rodgers having thrown a league-low five this season – including none at home.

— Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy ranks third in the NFL with 140 tackles, and he’s got 10 games of 10-plus tackles this season. Levy, a Milwaukee native who was a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2009, remains one of the NFL’s most unappreciated players as he awaits his first Pro Bowl selection. Last season, he had 118 tackles and finished second with six interceptions but wasn’t picked for the all-star game, either.

“Obviously, we certainly feel that he deserved that honor or recognition but that’s the way the voting went,” Caldwell said. “We can’t do anything about that. But we know one thing: He’s playing great. Last year, we had a chance to play against him when I was with Baltimore. He was just outstanding – had six interceptions and that kind of stuff during the course of the year. He’s done a great job through the years and continues to get better. That’s because he’s the consummate pro. He works at it.

“Every single day,” Caldwell continued, emphasizing each of those three words, “he’s in here doing something – getting his body ready to perform at the highest level. He’s a conscientious student of the game. Very, very knowledgeable. That’s why he plays the way he plays. I think it’s one of those things that the more familiar he gets with things in the league, you just continue to be able to master your craft.”

— Johnson is the gold standard for NFL receivers. He’s simply too big, too fast and too good for any cornerback to handle by himself.

As cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt put it: “He’s 6-5; I know there are more 6-5 guys out there. He runs 4.3; there’s other 4.3 guys out there. He has a huge catch radius; there’s guys that have that. He’s got a 40-some-inch vertical; there’s guys that have 40-inch verticals. But he’s the only person that has all of it.”

Earlier this season, Johnson became the fastest to 10,000 career receiving yards (115 games; Torry Holt, 116 games). His career average of 87.8 receiving yards per game is the highest in NFL history – and it’s not even close, with Houston’s Andre Johnson next with 80.1 per game. Over the last 60 games, Johnson’s average of 106.3 receiving yards per game is the best ever for any 60-game span (Hall of Famer Lance Alworth, 104.7).

Johnson has raised the bar in late-season games. Since 2011, Johnson has recorded 1,872 receiving yards in 16 games played in December and January. That’s 117.0 receiving yards per game; no other player even averages 100.

— The Packers have scored 288 points at home this season. The league record is within reach, though it’d take an unexpected scoring onslaught against a superior defense. In 2011, the Saints scored 329 points at home, so Green Bay could break that mark by scoring 42 points. The second-highest-scoring team of all-time was the 2011 Packers, who scored 321. A 34-point afternoon would break that record.

Four-point stance

— Nelson and Johnson might be the headliners but it’s Randall Cobb and Tate who are the go-to players for their teams on third down. Tate, a key acquisition from Seattle during the offseason, is second in the NFL with 33 receptions and first with 524 yards on third down. In terms of third-down catches that are turned into first downs, Cobb ranks third with 23 while Tate is tied for fourth with 22.

“He was the No. 1 receiver for about eight weeks. He was our guy,” Stafford said. “Calvin was either in the game and playing at about 50 percent or out of the game. The first half of the season, Golden has done a great job of making plays for us. I don’t know if it surprised me. I didn’t really know what to expect to tell you the truth. I knew he had some great run-after-catch ability. He was a big-time player for the Seahawks. Obviously, he’s been fantastic for us.”

Tate also leads the league’s receivers with 19 missed tackles forced, according to ProFootbalFocus.com, and 704 yards after the catch, according to STATS. Cobb is third with 17 missed tackles and fourth with 568 yards after the catch.

“He’s a guy who warrants some doubling of his own but you can’t really do that as much because you have to tend to Calvin,” Whitt said.

— McCarthy, lamenting his team going 4-of-10 on third down in the first matchup, said that would be a key in Round 2. Nelson agreed, then added a few more statistics.

“Obviously, in big games, you always look at third down, turnovers and red zone will be your three factors,” Nelson said. “And you can probably throw in explosive plays, especially against a defense like this that is one of the top in the league and probably don’t give very many of them up. Third downs will allow us to get multiple plays within a drive and I think that’s where we always do our best is when we get that first first down. And then we’ve got to get touchdowns when we get in the red zone. If we don’t turn the ball over, we’ll always be in position to win the game.”

The Packers rank fourth on third down (46.2 percent conversion rate), 11th in the red zone (56.7 percent touchdown rate) and first in giveaways (11). Detroit’s defense ranks fourth on third down (35.8 percent), 1th in the red zone (51.1 percent) and tied for ninth in takeaways (25).

— What would a victory mean for these teams, considering the winner gets a bye and at least one home playoff game? Green Bay is 7-0 at home, where it averages 41.1 points per game. Detroit went 7-1 at home, where it allows only 15.6 points per game and more than 17 points just once.

“It’s a lot on the line,” Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. “It’s definitely a lot on the line. Everybody knows that. We’re prepared to go out and play. We’re not putting any extra pressure on ourselves. We’re going out to play another game. It’s not another game but it’s how we’re treating it. We’re going to go out and rely on basics and fundamentals. We’re not going to make it bigger than what it is.”

What’s noteworthy for this game is the comparison of Rodgers at home vs. Stafford on the road. Rodgers has thrown 23 touchdown passes, no interceptions and compiled a rating of 132.6 at Lambeau. Meanwhile, Stafford has thrown six touchdowns and six interceptions with a rating of 72.8 on the road. That’s a differential of 49.8.

— After spending the top of the preview on Green Bay’s running game against Detroit’s run defense, it’s time to look at the other side of the ball. The Packers’ run defense has been superb since Week 10, ranking fourth in yards per game and per carry, and that’s a trend that must – and should -- continue. Detroit ranks 27th with 87.4 rushing yards per game and 30th with 3.51 yards per carry. However, the Lions are coming off a season-high 138 rushing yards last week, and two of their three games of more than 100 rushing yards have come in the last three weeks. The other? Their 115-yard output in Week 3 against Detroit.

“I think that naturally toward the latter part of the season, things start to pick up because you can clearly see goals, where you’re lining up (in the) division race (and) playoff race, a lot of big games in November and December have been played,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “Naturally, it heightens the competitive spirit and the preparation. I just think there’s a natural elevation of everything going toward making that push at the end of the year.”

Quoteworthy

Rodgers, on if it’s “ideal” to have a big game in Week 17: “Ideal would be 15-0, probably. But nah, it’s been a great season. We’ve had a lot of adversity to go through. I think that’s what really builds your team’s character (is) when you’re in some situations when your character is revealed. And guys responded well. The game against Buffalo was a rough one. I said during the week it’d be interesting to see how we respond to this, and the defense had an incredible game -- a lot of sacks, a limited amount of yards and created turnovers. Offensively, we had some very productive drives and a lot of yards. Not as many points as we would have liked, but it was a good step in the right direction after Buffalo. Now we have to take another step this week.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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