The Green Bay Packers have big-game experience on their side.
The Detroit Lions have big-drive experience on their side.
When these teams collide on Sunday night, with the NFC North championship and a playoff berth on the line, they will be as battle tested as any team in the league.
The Packers’ roster might be forever young but the core of the roster and coaching staff has been intact for several years. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in his first true big game in the 2009 playoffs at Arizona. Then came 2010, when Rodgers led the Packers through a gauntlet of back-to-back must-win games to end the regular season and four playoff games to win the Super Bowl. Rodgers had a 100-plus passer rating in four of those six games.
This will be the Packers’ fourth consecutive NFC North championship game in Week 17.
In 2013, the Packers faced the situation most similar to what awaits them on Sunday night. Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone to face Chicago at Soldier Field with the division title and a playoff spot at stake. Rodgers threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns, including a final-minute scoring strike to Randall Cobb to win the game.
In 2014, with a playoff spot secure but the Packers hosting the Lions for the division title, Rodgers had a 139.6 passer rating in a 30-20 victory.
In 2015, with a playoff spot secure but the Packers hosting the Vikings for division title, Rodgers’ play was about as pedestrian as it had been throughout the second half of the season as the Packers lost 20-13.
By our definition of a big game – must-win regular-season games, division championship games and playoff games, Rodgers has played 18 “big” games. The Packers are 11-7 in those games. Rodgers completed 64.7 percent of his passes, averaged 273 passing yards and tossed 37 touchdowns vs. 12 interceptions. Put together, that’s a passer rating of 99.7. He topped 100 eight times.
After starting this season 4-6, Rodgers has the Packers on the threshold of an eighth consecutive playoff berth, a feat that would match New England for the longest current streak in the NFL.
“I like that we’re playing for something,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “There’s something on the line. We’ve played in games before where we’ve had things locked up and it’s a different feeling. Obviously, we know what the situation is. We’ve got to win and we’re the North champions. We’ve come a long way this season, dealt with a lot of adversity in a very positive and encouraging way, and come together as a football team. Obviously, we’d like to keep this thing going.”
To keep it going, the Packers are going to have to beat the Lions at Ford Field. It won’t be easy. The Lions might not have much of a big-game history but they have an incredible big-drive history.
As has been well-documented, eight of the Lions’ nine wins have come on fourth-quarter comebacks. That’s the most in NFL history. The previous record was seven, by the 2009 Indianapolis Colts. The coach of that team was Jim Caldwell – the man who will lead the Lions into Sunday night’s championship game.
“I think you have to look at the makeup of the guys that we have,” Caldwell said during his conference call on Wednesday. “They are guys with a lot of a great character that work extremely hard. They don’t shy away from the moment at the end of the game. I think they understand situations.”
Rodgers’ counterpart, Matthew Stafford, is the ringleader. This is nothing new for him. He had five fourth-quarter comebacks in 2014, the last time the Lions qualified for the playoffs. He has 25 fourth-quarter comebacks and 28 game-winning drives in his career; Rodgers, by comparison, has 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 16 game-winning drives on his ledger. Stafford has the most game-winning drives since the 1970 merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. None of this year’s comebacks have been the stuff of legend in terms of scale, though he’s rallied the Lions from 20-point deficits four times in his career. But six times this year, Stafford has driven the Lions to the winning points with less than 2 minutes to go.
“I think it’s something we’ve worked hard to get comfortable at, and it’s worked out more times than it hasn’t,” receiver Golden Tate said during his conference call. “At practice, Coach Caldwell and Jim Bob (Cooter, the offensive coordinator) do a great job of putting us in situations that are a lot tougher than what we’ve dealt with in the game. For instance, it’ll be our ball with 50 seconds and zero timeouts left and we’re down by two or down by four or whatever it may be, so we’ve been in those situations. I think mentally we’re prepared, and then we have a quarterback that can make any thrown on the field. You can’t help but to have some confidence going into that situation.”
That confidence was evident in the huddle when the Lions took possession at their 25-yard line with 33 seconds to go and facing a one-point deficit at Indianapolis in Week 1. Just 29 seconds later, Matt Prater booted a 43-yard field goal to win the game.
“It actually hasn’t changed since the first time we did it against the Colts,” guard Larry Warford said while seated at his locker on Thursday. “When I went out in that huddle for that two-minute drive the first time, I’ve never felt such calm and focus out of the entire group and knowing that we were going to score. That’s just how it’s been the whole year.”
It’s not just Stafford. Of the Lions’ 10 interceptions, five of them have come in the final 2 minutes of the game. Four of the five clinched a victory and the other set up Detroit’s game-winning field goal against Minnesota on Nov. 24.
So, while the Lions lack the Packers’ big-game experience, they have big-moment experience that they hope can carry over to Sunday night.
“We just find ways to win,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “It doesn’t matter how you win, it just matters that you win. Of course it helps us. We wouldn’t be where we are without those many comeback drives led by Stafford.”
RODGERS ON THE ATTACK
While standout cornerback Darius Slay is expected to play after missing most of the last two games, the Lions’ secondary has been horrendous with or without him. The Lions are giving up a league-worst 72.9 percent completion rate. That’s easily the worst in NFL history, with the 2011 Colts yielding 71.2 percent. The Lions also rank last in the league with an opponent passer rating of 105.0. That’s merely the eighth-worst in NFL history.
With a division championship and, potentially, a playoff berth on the line, it won’t get any easier with the red-hot Rodgers rolling into town.
During Green Bay’s five-game winning streak, Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating at 119.8. Among quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts during that span, he’s tied for first with 11 touchdown passes, third with 8.49 yards per attempt, third with a completion percentage of 71.4 and sixth with 1,367 yards.
Remember when all the talk was about the struggles of Rodgers?
“I’m sure, as you recall, that I did not buy into that, right?” Caldwell said, thinking back to his Week 3 conference call. “You recall that? OK, exactly. This guy is as good as they come. I mean, he does everything that you could possibly want a quarterback to do. He has all the skill and talent and experience and all those things. There’s not anything he’s not doing well. And I think he’s always played well.”
And yet, the Lions’ defense is pretty darned good. And really darned good at home. Until they gave up 42 points in a blowout loss at Dallas on Monday night, the Lions had given up 20 points or less in eight consecutive games. It defies logic. The Lions have a horrendous pass defense. They don’t force turnovers. They don’t sack the quarterback. They don’t get off the field on third down or excel in the red zone. In fact, the Lions don’t rank better than 25th in any of those five categories. And yet the Lions rank 13th in scoring defense – including 10th in home games.
“Teams have to drive a long way, a long time, a lot of times,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “It’s hard. That’s why field position is so important in this game. You watch teams that have to drive the long field all the time, they don’t score a lot of points because a lot times they’ll make mistakes, unless you have just a super high-end offense that’s just flying around. For the most part, that’s when you say, ‘Hey, listen, if they have to drive the ball 75 yards, 80 yards on us consistently, each time, every time, that’s probably not going to happen.’ So, that’s our deal.”
Can Austin’s unit continue to bend but not break? Getting Slay back would help. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Rodgers targeted Slay just five times in the last three matchups – all in Week 3. He completed three of those for 31 yards and one touchdown.
Or will Rodgers demolish the Lions’ defense, just like he’s done so often in getting the Packers five-sixths of the way to running the table?
“That’s what it’s all about to me,” Rodgers said. “It’s about challenging myself and rising to meet those challenges. I think that’s what every great player wishes: that they can play at the level they know they’re capable of playing at. That’s why I enjoy the pressure being on me and I enjoy being out there and saying the things that I say, knowing that it’s going to come back onto me. As a quarterback, the spotlight’s on you, the pressure’s on you, the expectations are on you, and those are the things that I’ve taken upon myself over the years and looked forward to those challenges every single week.”
STAFFORD SPREADING THE WEALTH
Caldwell didn’t want to hear anything about the Lions’ offense being better without Calvin Johnson, even though that wasn’t quite what was asked.
The offense isn’t better with Johnson spending the fall “Dancing with the Stars” instead of “Scoring Touchdowns with the Lions.” But they are more challenging to defense – which is how the topic was broached to Caldwell in his conference call.
“I think obviously you can attribute that to Matt spreading it around,” Caldwell said. “He just follows his progression and reads it out. But oftentimes people try to interject, ‘Are you better off without Calvin?’ You’re never better off without a guy who’s 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds and a 4.3 and without question is going to be a Hall of Famer. I really take exception to that, when people even try to allude to the fact that you’re better off without maybe one of the greatest players that’s ever lined up at the position.”
Stafford is spreading the offensive wealth better than just about any quarterback in NFL history. Detroit has five players with at least 50 receptions, a feat accomplished by only four other teams in NFL history.
While Rodgers vs. the Lions’ secondary looks like a mismatch, the same is true with Stafford against the Packers’ secondary. Green Bay has allowed 3,976 passing yards. That’s already the second-most in franchise history. The dubious record set by the 2011 team is safe – that group allowed a staggering 4,796 passing yards – but only the 2004 team allowed a higher passer rating than this year’s squad (95.9 this year; 99.1 in 2004). The 64.9 percent completion rate is the worst in team history. The 30 touchdowns allowed are three shy of that dubious record.
Can a pass defense that porous beat a top-flight quarterback like Stafford in a do-or-die game? And if so, can it have any postseason success against guys like Eli Manning, Matt Ryan or Russell Wilson?
“Oh, I hope so,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
The word “hope” doesn’t inspire much confidence.
“I think it’s a combination of coverage, pressure,” Capers continued. “I’ve seen us at times play good pass defense, so I’m confident. All of these good quarterbacks in the league, if they get in a rhythm and a groove, they’re tough. Defensively, you’ve got to mix the coverage and the pressure.”
Getting pressure on Stafford will be key because Stafford has the weaponry to tear that defense apart. Receiver Golden Tate has a team-high 85 receptions, followed by receiver Anquan Boldin (63), tight end Eric Ebron (53), running back Theo Riddick (53) and receiver Marvin Jones (50). Riddick won’t play on Sunday but the Packers’ beleaguered pass defense will have its hands full, anyway. Tate is a run-after-catch monster. Boldin is a powerful veteran. Ebron is a size-speed mismatch. Jones can fly, as the Packers learned in Week 3, when he torched them for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
“You know, it’s no secret that Calvin was and is a great player, no doubt,” Tate said in his conference call. “But at the end of the day, NFL football still has to go on. I think a lot of guys accepted the challenge that we were going to have more opportunity, and we’ll work to further those. Every guy is in there working to earn those extra passes and carries out there that Calvin would’ve gotten. So, I think it’s obviously been working out well for us. We’re in a great situation right now. I think Matt is playing at a high level. I think he’s doing a great job at spreading the ball around, and we’ve been winning games. We miss Calvin, but we’ve kind of adjusted.”
Can the Packers make the adjustments in this must-win game? There have been four 200-yard receiving games this season. Green Bay allowed two of them, with Minnesota’s Adam Thielen having the other last week. Green Bay’s also given up a league-worst 11 100-yard receiving games.
INSIDE THE LIONS
-- In Week 3, Stafford lit up the Packers. Forced into comeback mode after the Packers raced to a 31-3 lead in the second quarter, Stafford completed 28-of-41 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns. He needs just 44 yards on Sunday to reach 30,000 passing yards for his career. Assuming that happens, Stafford will have reached that milestone in his 109th career game – five games faster than any player in NFL history. He trails only Drew Brees for most passing yards per game in a career.
Stafford looked like an early MVP candidate. In his first seven games, Stafford had a passer rating of more than 100 six times, with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. But as Rodgers has ascended down the stretch, Stafford has faded – even before suffering the dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand in the Week 14 victory over Chicago. In his last eight games, he’s topped a 100 passer rating only once and has seven touchdowns vs. five interceptions. The finger injury certainly hasn’t helped matters, with ratings of 64.3 vs. Chicago, 71.8 vs. the Giants and 63.7 vs. Dallas.
“Played some good teams. We just didn’t play as well as we can on offense,” Stafford said in diminishing the impact of the injury. “It’s not a one-person game, it’s not me vs. anybody. We’ve got to play well as a team, as an offense, as a group.”
Added Tate: “I would say if anything, the ball seems like it’s coming a little bit faster. I think 9 is spinning it very nicely. He’s just making it happen.”
-- Lost in the shuffle of Green Bay’s five-game winning streak is the improvement against tight ends. Against Seattle, Chicago and Minnesota the past three weeks, the Packers have yielded nine receptions for 84 yards and no touchdowns against opposing tight ends. Contrast that to 10 catches vs. Tennessee and Houston and seven vs. Atlanta and Indianapolis.
Up next is Ebron, the 10th pick of the 2014 draft. Despite missing three games this season, he’s got career highs of 55 receptions, 650 yards, 11.8 yards per catch and 69.6 percent for a catch rate. He ranks 12th among tight ends in receptions and 10th in yards, and is coming off an eight-catch, 93-yard game vs. Dallas. About the only knock is his seven drops – most in the NFL among tight ends.
“He’s done some nice things,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “Done some nice things, especially in the pass game, I thought he’s caught the ball well. Does a pretty good job of getting open on a lot of the routes we ask him to. Getting better and better blocking. That was kind of a point of emphasis for us and I think he’s really taken it to heart and really working to improve himself at that. He’s getting better and better, (and) we’ve got to keep him coming.”
-- Rodgers should have opportunities to attack the Lions’ beleaguered secondary. But first, the Packers’ line must provide Rodgers time to scan the field. Kerry Hyder has a team-high eight sacks off the bench. Remarkably, he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and played in a grand total of two snaps in his first two years. The marquee defensive lineman, however, is starting end Ezekiel Ansah.
Ansah finished third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks last season. But he’s got only two sacks this season, though they’ve come in the last two games. In his first three seasons, he averaged 10 sacks, 14.3 hurries and three forced fumbles, according to STATS. This season, he’s got only nine hurries – less than half of last year’s total of 19 – and has zero forced fumbles. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Ansah is tied for eighth among 4-3 defensive ends with 12 quarterback hits but tied for 30th with 32 total pressures (the total of sacks, hits and hurries).
Part of the problem is an ankle injury that sidelined him for three games – including the Week 3 matchup at Lambeau Field.
“Probably a few weeks back you could kind of see a noticeable difference just in terms of his power that he typically utilizes during a course of a game,” Caldwell said. “But he’s been steadily just playing better and better. I think oftentimes when they look at him and watch his effectiveness, they always just look strictly at sack numbers. But last week, he had seven tackles and, oftentimes, those tackles he makes (are) on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He makes a lot of great plays for us, so I don’t think you can just strictly judge it by the fact that a couple games in a row he’s got a couple sacks. So, hey, maybe he’s back. He’s been doing a lot of things for us even before those sack totals started to increase.”
According to PFF, Ansah has picked up the pace over the last six weeks. Among 4-3 ends, he is tied for third with seven quarterback hits, tied for 19th with 10 hurries and tied for 12th with 19 total pressures.
“He’s been doing well before the sacks started coming,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “You could see him getting pressure on quarterbacks. He always sets the edge for us, he does a good job, so I think it’s just natural that it’s going to happen. He’s a good player.”
-- The Lions’ history is, in a word, bleak.
Their all-time record is 544-640-32. They haven’t won the division since 1993 or a playoff game since 1991. They haven’t won a championship since 1957. It took a former Packers quarterback, Tobin Rote, to lead the charge in the championship game. In the Super Bowl era, they’ve gone 1-11 in playoff games, including seven consecutive losses.
But this about says it all, as noted in Page 2 of the Lions’ pregame media publication: Caldwell is only the third coach in franchise history to reach 25 wins in his first 50 games. In other words, of the men to coach at least 50 games, Caldwell is one of only three to even be .500. Considering there have been 26 coaches in Lions history, that’s not a good track record.
So why on earth is Caldwell’s job security in question? He’s 27-20 in three seasons. The Lions won 29 games in five seasons under Jim Schwartz, 10 games in three seasons under Rod Marinelli and 16 games in three seasons under Steve Mariucci. From 2001 through 2010, the Lions lost at least 10 games in nine of 10 seasons; in the other season, they lost nine.
“It's all about the team,” Caldwell said. “It's the team, the team, the team, period. Coaches don't worry about themselves or anything of that nature. This is a big game for our entire organization. It's huge.”
— First, a note from last week and, like the week prior, it involves a historical achievement and the Bears. With its victory over Minnesota, Green Bay has won 217 games at Lambeau Field. That’s the most for any team at any venue, eclipsing Chicago’s 216 wins at Wrigley Field.
— The Packers have won 99 games against the Lions. With a victory on Sunday, they’d become the first team to beat an opponent 100 times.
Green Bay has dominated the series of late. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is 17-4 against the Lions and Rodgers is 12-3 with 30 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 108.0 passer rating.
“I don’t even have to think about that stuff,” Warford said. “We’ve been going back and forth with them ever since I’ve been a rookie. With everything we’re playing for right now, I’m not thinking about the past with the Packers. This is an important game. This is going to be an exciting game.”
While many of the recent games have been blowouts, the last one, of course, was not: The Packers’ last trip to Detroit was one of the most memorable in the rivalry’s history, with Richard Rodgers’ 61-yard, game-winning touchdown catch giving Green Bay a shocking 27-23 win.
“It’s nice on the film,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It’s different year, different things on the line. That was a great memory we’ll take with us for years but hopefully we’ll make some more on Sunday.”
-- The Lions haven’t won a division championship since 1993. The Lions and Packers played at the old Silverdome with the NFC Central championship on the line in the regular-season finale. The Lions won that game 30-20. Six days later, the teams played again at the Silverdome in the Wild Card round. The Packers won that game 28-24. Brett Favre hit Sterling Sharpe with three touchdown passes, including a memorable 40-yard, across-the-field touchdown in the final moments to win the game.
-- The Packers have won five games in a row. They haven’t ended the regular season with a six-game winning streak since 1941. That team won its last eight games but got smashed by Chicago 33-14 for the NFL Championship.
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
-- Turnovers are key in most games – teams winning the turnover margin are 147-46-1 this season. When they win the turnover battle, the Packers are 7-1 and the Lions are 6-1. Those numbers are even more pronounced of late. Due in part to Rodgers' 206-pass interception-free streak, the Packers are plus-13 during their five-game winning streak, which is why they’ve surged to plus-7 for the season, while the Lions are minus-2 in each of their back-to-back losses. In fact, they’re minus-2 for three consecutive weeks, sending them to even for the season.
Ball security is paramount for Stafford. In his first 12 games, he threw five interceptions and lost the ball once on two fumbles. Since dislocating the middle finger on his throwing hand against Chicago in Week 14, he’s thrown four interceptions and lost the ball on his only fumble. That’s five turnovers in less than three games compared to six turnovers in the first 12-plus games. The sloppy play is uncharacteristic of Stafford, who’s worked hard to fix that phase of the game. In his first six seasons, he averaged 16.2 interceptions and 6.8 fumbles – including 19 picks and a league-high 12 fumbles in 2013. This year, he’s thrown nine interceptions and fumbled three times.
“No question,” Stafford said about cleaning that up for Sunday night. “That’s the No. 1 stat in football -- turnover margin. We’ve got to do a good job of on offense, making sure we keep the ball and on defense, try and force them.”
The Packers have been forcing them in bunches. Remarkably, Green Bay had 10 takeaways in the first 10 games but 14 during its five-game winning streak.
“This has always been a trapping style of defense,” Cooter said. “They overload blitz you. Their corners will trap routes and when the quarterback’s feeling pressure, sometimes that ball gets out of his hand and those trap corners go make those plays. They’ve got long safeties with long arms. They’ve got good guys up front, really creating pressure on the quarterback, getting the ball out. Whether that’s sack-fumbles or tipped passes, I’ve seen a bunch of tipped passes that have hit the ground. You’ve got to be on every single detail versus a defense like this. I think they’re really good, really talented. The scheme is good.”
-- Along with turnovers, the situational stats are what matters in most games. The Packers and Lions field excellent third-down offenses, with Green Bay ranking second (46.2 percent conversions) and Detroit ninth (42.6 percent). Can either defense get off the field on third down? That’s a huge question. Green Bay ranks 24th (41.2 percent conversions) and Detroit ranks 29th (44.9 percent).
In the red zone, again, the offenses have the edge. Green Bay ranks 12th (58.1 percent touchdowns) and Detroit ranks 19th (53.3 percent). Defensively, Green Bay is 27th (61.9 percent touchdowns) and Detroit is 30th (65.3 percent).
-- Beware the YAC attacks. The Lions enter the final game of the season ranked fourth in yards after the catch with 2,106 while the Packers are 10th with 1,916 YAC.
The Lions, especially, rely on the run-after-catch ability of their pass-catchers to drive their passing game. Stafford ranks second among quarterbacks with an average of 5.78 YAC per completion. Tate is the key to that. He ranks fifth in the league and second among all wide receivers with 595 yards after the catch. Riddick is 21st with 389 YAC.
Rodgers is less reliant on YAC, ranking 12th with 5.03 yards per completion.
There’s a price to be paid, though, if there’s an overeagerness to run after the catch. The Lions have dropped an NFL-high 28 passes, with Ebron’s seven and Jones’ six leading the way. Green Bay’s only dropped 15, which is the 13th-best figure in the league.
Defensively, YAC-centric offenses put the pressure on the defenders to tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, Green Bay has missed 85 tackles on defense while Detroit has missed 90.
-- With 26 receptions for 321 yards and one touchdown, Jared Cook hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm for the Packers. He ranks 34th among tight ends in receptions. But stats don’t always tell the story. When Cook is on the field, the Packers average 7.61 yards per passing play. When he’s off the field, the Packers average 6.36 yards, according to league data. That’s a difference of 1.25 yards – the biggest difference among the aforementioned top 34.
“He’s an athletic guy at tight end,” Whitehead said. “He’s got vertical speed. He has good hands. He can take a short pass the distance. He’s a veteran guy, so he knows the tricks of the trade. You’ve got to cover him up as best you can and really keep him from making a big play.”
Because of his size and athleticism, Cook is someone who must be accounted for by defenses. That puts defenses in a pickle because Nelson has been a force down the stretch, Adams has had a breakout year and Cobb remains a threat in the slot.
“I think you’ve seen it the last few weeks with all our guys,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said. “With the play of Jordy and Davante, the more moving parts we have, the more stress it puts on a defense. They have to decide who they want to leave singled up because that’s the matchups that you look for, and one week a team may choose to play us this way and another week they may choose to play us another way. At the end of the day, everybody’s trying to do the same thing (and) take away what you do well. And offensively, you’re trying to exploit the matchups you believe are in your favor each week. So, the more players you have that can play at a high level, the easier it becomes.”
-- The Packers’ special teams struggled, along with the rest of the team, during the four-game losing streak. However, the special teams have risen to the occasion in tough matchups against Philadelphia, Seattle and Minnesota during the five-game winning streak. It will be another challenge this week against the Lions, who have a premier punter, big-play returner and a strong-legged kicker.
First, it’s punter Sam Martin. His net average is 44.1 yards – the third-best in NFL history. By contrast, counterpart Jacob Schum’s gross average is 43.8. However, it’s worth noting that the Packers have won the net-punting battle in six of the last seven games, meaning field-position victories.
“It’s one of our goals,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “We want our net punt to be better than theirs, we want our kickoff return to be better, our punt return to be better. You’re going against each other and you’re looking at field position. That’s how we judge our goals. Obviously, we have a big test again this week with the punter and the way they kick and punt. It’s going to be, like all of them, another test.”
Schum and Co. will be challenged by the Lions’ punt-return unit. Andre Roberts ranks second in the NFL with a 12.3-yard average and is tied with Minnesota’s Marcus Sherels for the NFL lead with two touchdowns.
“He runs strong with the ball,” Zook said. “If you watch, he breaks tackles. He’s shifty, he has great vision, good acceleration. I don’t know if he’s a 4.3 top-end speed guy but he runs away from people. I think the thing is, whatever speed he is, he gets there in one step. The thing we’ve showed all week is how he breaks tackles.”
With Martin punting and Roberts returning, the Lions have gained an average of 5.7 yards on each exchange of punts throughout the season. Prater is 30-of-34 on field goals, including 6-of-6 from 50-plus yards. On starting field position allowed on kickoff returns, the Lions rank 13th and the Packers remain 32nd, though that’s merely a 2.0-yard difference. In what could be a tight game in which field position will be at a premium, special teams could be a deciding factor.
“Oh, for sure. That’s every game, not just big games,” Martin said. “Sometimes, that’s the difference in games, whether it’s a field goal or a big punt return or pinning them deep on a punt. Those can be game-changer plays, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get an edge.”
— The Lions haven’t been good very often. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, with that team reaching the NFC Championship Game.
Since the start of the 2000 season, the Lions have qualified for the playoffs only two times: 2011 and 2014. (Coincidentally, those were Rodgers’ MVP seasons.) From 2000 through 2015, the Lions have fielded at least decent teams six times. In those seasons with at least seven wins, the Lions are 3-3 at home against Green Bay. Green Bay won in 2007, 2011 and 2015; Detroit won in 2000, 2013 and 2014.
The division-title drought is “something that’s not even talked about, really,” Tate said. “I guess different guys will have their different perspectives, but it’s the reason why I play football, for games like this. It’s a Sunday night game. For us, it’s at home. A lot on the line. All eyes are watching. A chance for us to get to the playoffs and win the division. That’s special, and that’s something that we need to try to take advantage of. I’m excited about the opportunity, and definitely not going to try to shy away from the spotlight.”
-- Speaking of playing at home, the Lions are 6-1 at home this season – including six consecutive wins. The Lions’ defense is a whole other animal at home. They’ve allowed 19.0 points per game in those home games, including 16.5 in its last four against Washington, Jacksonville, Minnesota and Chicago.
“Ford Field I think is such a unique stadium,” McCarthy said. “I always go back to the first time we pulled up there. I didn’t know where I was going as far as you come off the street and we’ll go down the tunnel there, but with that, I think it’s very well-constructed and designed. Just the crowd noise alone and the brick wall. There’s just some acoustics in there that are very favorable to the home team. It’s a fast surface, too, so it’s a challenge. It’s definitely different playing there as opposed to playing Lambeau Field. Obviously, home and away is always different, but I don’t think you can get any further as far as on the extremes of a grass field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a fast track over there at Ford Field in that dome environment.”
-- Neither team is going to roll a juggernaut rushing attack onto the field.
Ty Montgomery’s 413 rushing yards are the second-fewest by a team leader. He ran roughshod over the Bears two weeks ago but was stymied by the Vikings last week. Still, his average of 6.0 yards per attempt jumps off the page. He played just four snaps on offense against Detroit in Week 3.
“He’s been playing extremely well at the running back position,” Whitehead said. “When they drafted him, he was a good talent for that team. He’s a strong guy. He’s a shifty guy. You saw that from college, even at the wide receiver position. He’s come in and stepped into that position and he’s embraced it, and it definitely shows. The running game has definitely improved with him and (Christine) Michael. He runs like a running back. You saw that even when he played wideout. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Lions’ rushing attack has been feeble, ranking 26th in yards per carry and 30th in yards per game. Riddick, whose 357 rushing yards are the fewest by any team leader, is out, so Zach Zenner figures to be the primary ball-carrier. Zenner, an undrafted rookie out of South Dakota State last year, rushed for 67 yards vs. Dallas – with 64 coming in the first half before Detroit inexplicably stopped giving him the ball.
Stopping whoever is in the backfield will be key, despite the Lions’ overall lack of rushing production.
“They’re obviously trying to run the ball more,” Capers said. “They did early in the game run the ball effectively against the Cowboys, which opens up a lot of other things. You don’t want them to get to where they can do either/or.”
Lions LB Tahir Whitehead on facing Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: “We’re not going to have no spider senses. You ain’t going to develop them out of nowhere. You know what you are, who you are. Your film study, your technique – all that stuff that you put in during the week, that’s what you have going into the game. You’re not going to go and find some magic potion to make you a better player just because you’re going up against Aaron Rodgers.”
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