Keys to the game

To quote famous baseball thinker Yogi Berra, who would have thunk it?

When the Green Bay Packers visit Ford Field in Detroit today, one of the teams will have one win while the other team will have just one loss. Instead of the one-loss team being the Super Bowl-hopeful Green Bay Packers, they carry a stunning 1-4 record into today's game. Detroit, meanwhile, after years of ineptitude under general manager Matt Millen, is tied for the NFC North lead at 3-1.

While the Packers are one of the biggest disappointments in the league, the Lions are somewhat of a mystery. Their three wins came at Chicago, home against Houston and at Atlanta. The Bears are terrible, the Texans are mediocre at best and Atlanta can't score.

None of this matters, though, if the Packers play like they did Monday night against Tennessee. If the Packers put together another lifeless effort, the Lions will roll. Packers coach Mike Sherman, for one, says his team's fortitude will show. Ditto for quarterback Brett Favre.

"At some point you wonder, week after week, if these challenges are getting tougher and we're not able to stand up to them," Favre said. "But I don't see that with our team yet. I don't know what guys say when they leave here, but from what I can tell, we are all upset and frustrated by what's happened."

Here are the rest of this week's keys to the game.

2. AHMAN GREEN

Last season, Green Bay's running attack made team history and Ahman Green set the franchise's single-season rushing record. This year, the Packers are averaging 99 yards per game on the ground.

Part of the reason is the early deficits the Packers are facing, compounded by a defense that has forced the offense to try to score two touchdowns on every possession. It's hard to stick to the run when the defense is allowing points at an alarming rate.

Another reason is the injury to Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan. Flanagan was the leader of the offensive line, and his athleticism allowed him to lead sweeps and screen passes.

The third reason is the frequent fumbles by Green. He has lost a fumble in each of the last three games, all losses. In the last eight games Green has lost a fumble, the Packers are 0-8. In the Bears game, Green's fumble turned into a 14-point swing. Against the Giants, his fumble marred back-to-back big plays. Against the Titans, his fumble allowed Tennessee to add a field goal to go ahead 17-0.

The Packers will face a big challenge if they hope to get their running game on track today. Detroit's run defense has been outstanding, ranking ninth in the league at 98.2 yards per game. The key has been the defensive tackle combo of Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson.

"There have been 49 running backs this year that have rushed for 100 yards in a game. None have been against our defense," said Lions coach Steve Mariucci.

3. TURNOVERS

Detroit ranks third in the NFL in turnover ratio at plus-9, on the strength of 12 takeaways and only three giveaways. The Packers were minus-6 last week alone and are minus-9 for the season. Only two teams have a worse ratio. The Packers have 14 giveaways already this season.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to determine why the Packers must be more conscientious with the football. With the Packers' defense being so porous, the Packers' offense can't afford to give the Lions more opportunities with the football.

"You don't have to look very far to see that they're taking the ball away from their opponents and hanging on to it on offense," said Packers coach Mike Sherman. "So they've been very effective in being opportunistic."

4. PASS DEFENSE

Green Bay's pass defense stands 22nd in the league, allowing 234.0 yards per game. In hopes of turning things around, rookie first-round pick Ahmad Carroll will make his starting debut today. He had a rough game Monday against Tennessee, but he was forced to sit out the previous two contests due to a groin injury. He certainly upgrades the speed, which was lacking with previous starter Michael Hawthorne.

Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington is finally playing up to his first-round billing. In his first two seasons, Harrington threw a combined 29 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. His career completion percentage was 53.3. This season, Harrington has thrown seven touchdown passes, two interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes.

"I think I'm better able to manage a game now and put our team in better situations," said Harrington. "In past years, I've forced some balls. I've gotten confused in reads. I felt like I had to try and create instant offense. Now, with better knowledge of the system and having better players around me, that's helped me become more comfortable in this offense and more in control of things."

5. RUN DEFENSE

A look at the league rushing leaders is a sorry, sorry story. New York's Tiki Barber leads the league. Second in the league is Tennessee's Chris Brown. Third is Edgerrin James. Way, way, way down at 14th is Chicago's Thomas Jones. The common thread, of course, is all four torched the Green Bay run defense.

Detroit's running game stands just 29th in the NFL at 87.3 yards per game. Artose Pinner and rookie first-rounder Kevin Jones have combined for 225 yards in four games and 3.2 yards per rush. If the Packers can't stop this running game, then the Packers could be starring at a 1-5 record.


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