Questioning the Lions
Bill: Matthew Stafford's performance seems like the stuff of legend — or a way to start a legend. What's the talk about there about the guts of the Lions' No. 1 overall draft choice? And is there any chance his left shoulder is healthy enough to play on Thursday?
Nate: I think Stafford certainly endeared himself to any fans that might have been on the fence, and confirmed the suspicions of those who believed him to have great potential. Even before he trotted out with a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder (and promptly tossed an eventual game-winning touchdown), Stafford had led touchdown drives on four other occasions, and simply seemed to be on fire with five touchdown passes. Of course, it didn't hurt that it was against Cleveland.
As for his play status: The line out of Detroit is a game-time decision – he's listed as doubtful, meaning there's only a 25 percent chance he will play -- but if Stafford can go, he'll go. He won't need to practice because it's such a short week, but the Lions will do everything in their power to ready him for a nationally televised appearance.
Bill: The Packers wiped out the Lions here about a month ago, but that Detroit team was riddled with injuries. Have you seen much growth in the Lions since then?
Nate: The injuries really haven't slowed down much since Detroit was blanked at Lambeau. It's just been that sort of season. However, the Lions were without Stafford and Johnson in that particular game, and were missing a few defensive linemen, too. While injuries are part of the game, it's difficult to gauge a team's capabilities, especially one as shallow as Detroit.
If Stafford and Johnson play on Thursday, you should expect a much more competitive performance than the one offered a few weeks back. Neither of them practiced this week, though Johnson is listed as questionable (50 percent chance of playing).
Bill: Well, the Packers are without Al Harris, leaving them without half of the dynamic cornerback duo. Charles Woodson can't cover everyone, but do the Lions have a legit threat opposite Calvin Johnson?
Nate: The Bryant Johnson experiment opposite CJ has yielded some success, but he hasn't been the sure-handed No. 2 that every team needs -- and that the Lions thought they had when they acquired him in the offseason. Rather, the Lions are relying on rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who leads all rookie tight ends in receptions, and running back Kevin Smith in the seam to give Stafford more options when his favorite target is blanketed by defenders.
Bill: The Browns had scored five touchdowns on offense dating to Nov. 23, 2008, then put up 37 against Detroit on Sunday. Is there any reason to believe the Lions can even slow the Packers' attack?
Nate: In a word? No.
While there's a handful of Cleveland fans that might want to believe Brady Quinn has talent or that Eric Mangini is competent, it's probably more believable that they simply ran into a bad Detroit defense. Last season, the Lions set a modern NFL record in pitiful pass defense, and they're challenging that mark again this year, allowing a league-high 275 passing yards per game. Even more astonishing? Opposing QBs are averaging a rating of 110.3. To give you some perspective, that's eight points better than Peyton Manning's QB rating and only two shy of Minnesota's nearly flawless Brett Favre.
If Aaron Rodgers can't muster some modicum of success, he only has himself to blame.
Bill: I see the Lions have sold out Thursday's game. Does that mean there's a little bit of buzz building around this team, and after putting up with a lot of horrific football over the years, what are your thoughts on the direction plotted by Jim Schwartz and Co.?
Nate: The Thanksgiving Day game is traditionally a popular home contest for the Lions, but I doubt there were lines of fans waiting to gobble up those individual seats (it's more likely that companies bought the remaining seats to hand to employees). However, two wins is better than none, and with six weeks to remaining, the Lions have proven even in baby steps that progress is evident in the Motor City.
I think there's a general consensus among the media and fans that Schwartz simply gets it. Whereas Rod Marinelli and Matt Millen had their notable drawbacks, they also both seemed uncomfortable within their roles. Schwartz, meanwhile, seems to have a plan, and his first draft class has yielded strong success especially with a stud quarterback. Because the Lions will be in optimal positions the next two drafts, there could be something positive building in Detroit. Finally.
Questioning the Packers
Charles Woodson hits Daunte Culpepper during a 26-0 Packers win last month.
Nate: I know we've rehashed this before, but how painful is it for Packer fans to watch the success of Brett Favre in Minnesota? And if Favre wins or even competes in the Super Bowl (with a division rival, no less), is there anything the organization can do to win back the trust of the fan base?
Bill: It was painful for the fans to see Brett Favre come back to Lambeau Field and beat the Packers. But as long as Aaron Rodgers keeps producing, I think most Packers fans understand what general manager Ted Thompson did in trading Favre last summer.
Really, Favre isn't an issue anymore. The larger issue is whether Thompson, in his fifth year as general manager, and Mike McCarthy, in his fourth year as head coach, have this team headed in the right direction. There were calls for both to get fired after back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay sent Green Bay to 4-4, but the Packers have bounced back with two key wins. Win again on Thursday, and the Packers are 7-4 and in pretty good shape entering the stretch run.
But if this team fails to make the playoffs again – making it 0-for-2 post-Favre – then the calls for changes will resume. Whatever Favre does will make headlines, but it really shouldn't be a factor in determining the fate of the coach and general manager. It's not as if they jettisoned a committed 35-year-old Favre for the second coming of Ryan Leaf.
Nate: What do the injuries to Aaron Kampman and Al Harris mean to both Thursday's game, and the remainder of the season?
Bill: Frankly, I think the Packers' playoff hopes died last week when Kampman and Harris went down with season-ending knee injuries. The Packers can at least get by without Kampman because they have good depth at outside linebacker, but losing Harris is by far the bigger issue.
You know how this league is: Other than quarterback and left tackle, no position in the NFL has fewer good players than cornerback. The Packers were actually pretty blessed to have Harris, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams at the position. Williams probably will be fine in place of Harris – he was for four games last season, when Harris was out with a spleen injury – but it's the domino effect of players who shouldn't be getting significant playing time being asked to play more snaps. They might be fine against the Lions, but the final part of the season includes games against Baltimore (Joe Flacco), Chicago (Jay Cutler), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and Arizona (Kurt Warner). It's not a good time to be short-handed in the secondary.
Nate: How have the Packers' B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews rookies fared thus far into their respective first seasons? Are there any apparent diamonds-in-the-rough from the later rounds that are worth keeping an eye on?
Bill: Raji started slowly because of a contract holdout and sprained ankle, but he's really picking up steam over the last few weeks. A big guy like Raji just can't play without the explosion generated by his lower body, so a bum ankle is a big deal. He's over that now, though, and while he doesn't start, he's been solid in about 20 snaps per game. Matthews has been good – though I think his play has been a bit overrated by some, who remember his four sacks and three fumble recoveries. It's not a knock on Matthews. For a rookie, he's having a good year, but he's also disappeared at times, too.
You'll see at least one diamond in the rough today, with seventh-round pick Brad Jones expected to start and see plenty of playing in time at Kampman's spot at left outside linebacker. Sixth-round pick Brandon Underwood could get playing time in sub packages without Harris. Fourth-rounder T.J. Lang looks like a keeper, either at guard or right tackle.
Nate: If you're the Detroit Lions, what is your best chance for victory against the Packers, and where have opponents had the best amount of success?
Bill: On offense, I'd come out throwing. The Packers have been superb against the run and they're questionable in the secondary and rushing the passer. So, put sure-handed Kevin Smith in the backfield with four receivers (or three receivers and tight end Brandon Pettigrew) and just start chucking it, especially in the direction of Williams and nickel corner Jarrett Bush.
On defense, they have to stop the improving Packers running game. Get the Packers into second-and-9 or third-and-6 and then hope one of your linemen can add to Rodgers' league-leading sack total.
The Packers should win this game but it wouldn't surprise me to see it go the other way.
Nate: What has been the divisional reaction -- at least in Green Bay -- to Matthew Stafford's game against the Browns, and comparisons drawn to a "young Brett Favre" that have been proposed by the media?
Bill: Well, I've heard enough Brett Favre comparisons over the years to just discard those out of hand. Heck, J.P. Losman was compared to Favre while coming out of Tulane. That didn't work out so well for the Bills. Let's see if Stafford can throw for more touchdowns than interceptions before we even debate whether he's a good quarterback, much less the next Favre.
with that said, I know that more than half of our nine-minute conference call with Stafford on Tuesday centered on his gutty performance. McCarthy and Rodgers heaped praise on Stafford, as well. Maybe Stafford will join the long line of top-overall quarterbacks who flopped like a fish, but it's hard to imagine his performance not galvanizing the locker room. To succeed, quarterbacks must win the trust of their teammates. I'm not sure if he's won that trust, but you know that they've got his back. That's a great start.